There were dwarf mines in the Autumn of Magic. They were on every continent, under every mountain range where precious metals could be found. From the entrances they could stretch for dozens of miles, burrowing deep into the earth, following every vein of ore.
The mines were places of magic and enchantment. Gems encrusted the throne rooms. Carved pillars held up buttresses so high that the roof was lost in darkness. Arched bridges crossed over underground rivers, while in deep caverns the dwarves worked carefully beside rivers of flowing lava.
Gold, silver, copper, tin, jewels, iron, crystals – all were hauled up from the depths of the earth to join the dwarves’ treasure hoards. The dwarves reveled in their riches as the tide of magic ran strong. Some dwarf mines became places of great commerce, where magical creatures of all varieties mingled in the upper halls trading spells, exotic food, books, and magical items.
But Autumn turns to Winter – always. As the tide of magic ebbed, so too did the dwarf mines. As the protective charms of the dwarf mages dimmed, dark creatures encroached from above and below. Dragons swooped from the sky to lay claim to the treasure, while elementals and trolls crawled from the walls. The dwarves were forced to retreat farther and farther toward ancient homelands, abandoning their mines to foul hands.
But as the tide of magic grew weaker, the new invaders fell in their turn. The trolls fell apart; or slowed until they were little more than the rock they came from. The elementals withered; and the dragons fell asleep on their hoards, slowly turning to dust as magic faded from the world.
New creatures began to rule Earth – creatures that could live without magic. Human cities spread, their technology growing every century. The dwarves faded to creatures of legend. Their mines lay forgotten, the chambers slowly crumbling away. The riches of the earth came to humans now, with quarries turning to strip mines turning to oil rigs.
The centuries turned. A few humans began landing on the moon, then decades later, many more. Space ports blossomed all over Earth. New leaders arose – massive imperial houses commanding legions of soldiers. Other species without magic came into the light, joining the different factions of humans in waging an endless conflict. The wars spread to the stars, consuming galaxies in the quest for dominance. Humans spread over the cosmos; their leaders locked in an endless struggle.
At last, after great battles had left all but the strongest house in tatters, a rough peace settled. Earth by now had become unimportant – a footnote in a cosmic empire. The dwarf mines under its surface were long gone – victims of the wear-and-tear of time. Even the most remote tunnels had collapsed after centuries of neglect, leaving no trace of what once was. The glory of the dwarf mines of old was forgotten.
But Winter turns to Spring – always. And in time, the first crocus of magic began to bloom.
But it did not bloom unnoticed.
• • • • •
The ship decelerated below lightspeed, the outer ring of its Alcubierre drive slowly spinning to a stop as it encountered Earth’s gravity well. Behind the ship, an impossibly fast copy of the craft zipped backward towards the stars – an optical illusion caused by the light emitted mid-transit catching up to the ship’s current location.
The craft was a dark black, edges sharpened like razors. Moments after dropping its warp field all lights on the spaceship went dark. After a few minutes, a slow flare began in its rear engines, bringing the ship closer to the atmosphere with the smallest possible burn signature. It carefully navigated an orbital path that kept Earth between itself and the moon, coming down in the middle of the North Pacific.
Dipping below the clouds, the ship flared up its thrusters, zipping a precarious route between cloud and heaving sea. It zagged back and forth over the miles, carefully avoiding all islands as it closed in on the east coast of Russia.
The ship crossed the coast north of Tilichiki and flew inland. After a dozen miles it raised its flaps and slowed, lowering the landing struts. It circled a half-turn and settled down in an area of low, rugged hills.
The boarding ramp hit the ground almost before the ship finished touching down. A wave of heavily-armored myrmidons poured down the ramp – clear, rectangular riot shields forming a dense wall. On the sides of the ship, other myrmidons popped open hatches and leapt out onto the wings with sniper rifles raised, their antennae waving slightly in the breeze as they scanned the surrounding hills. Back on the ramp, several more myrmidons with missile launchers marched out behind the first wave of shield myrmidons, then behind them came several humans with pistols drawn.
At last came a figure in a sharp military suit with a high-pressed collar. A complex series of medallions and rank markings covered his left breast pocket. He had the appearance of a human, but the measured step and unreadable gaze of a myrmidon. As he exited the craft, the crowd of soldiers nearest the top of the ramp parted in front of him and turned to salute.
The figure raised his hand in the air and shouted in a loud voice, “I am Ambassador Martin of Alpheus Inaria! We come in peace!”
There was silence. The cold breeze still blew over the low hills, making a quiet howling in the background. There was a slight scrape as one of the myrmidons absently shifted his rocket launcher to the other shoulder, then silence again.
Ambassador Martin lowered his arm. He pulled his wrist communicator close to his face, and spoke into it in a voice much dryer and more monotone than his previous shout. “Assumption: area is deserted. Perimeter guards: confirm or deny.”
Each of the three snipers on the wings replied back in turn, speaking in a similar near-monotone:
“North perimeter reporting: assumption confirmed.”
“West perimeter reporting: assumption confirmed.”
“East perimeter reporting: assumption confirmed.”
The humans on the boarding ramp visibly relaxed, slightly lowering their weapons. The myrmidons still held their unreadable gaze. Ambassador Martin turned to one of the humans and said, “You’re up.”
The human, a large man in a loose uniform with engine grease stains covering large biceps, stepped forward, banging his fists together absently. In contrast to the myrmidons his accent had a strong drawl. “Ok everyone! Here’s the drill. The boys back at the lab picked up somethin’ in the Gibbs Free Energy field coming from this area. That’s G-I-B-B-S Free Energy field. Look it up when we get back. Point is, that field is totally not supposed to be changing or something, so Wings wants to know what’s up. That’s where you come in.”
A scrawny human laden with heavy devices, vaguely shaped like radar scanners, exited the ship and came down the boarding ramp, passing out the devices as he went. The large man continued, “What my assistant is handing out are called flame irreality enhancers. They are basically a brick compared to what we have at the lab, but you work with what you got. What these babies will do is tell us where the problem’s comin’ from. Don’t bother pointing it, just stand where you want to do your detectin’.”
The man picked up one of the devices and flicked a switch. A small flame like a Bunsen burner started up at one end.
“This is the tricky part, so pay attention. You need to focus on the flame and use your mind to will the flame to get bigger. I know that sounds weird, so let me say it again. You need to think really hard about making the flame bigger. Most of the time, that does nothin’, but if the flame actually does get bigger when you think about it, that’s what we’re looking for.”
There was a slight muttering among the humans as the man spoke about using willpower to make the flame bigger. While they muttered, the man turned toward Ambassador Martin. “I don’t know if this will work with the myrmidons; ya know, with the whole emotionless thing. Like, you need to kinda not be thinking too logically about it. Maybe just the humans on this one?”
Ambassador Martin replied, “That is not how it works. We are logical by choice, not by compulsion. We can make your device work if it is for the good of the Empire.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” said the man. He shouted at the scrawny boy, “Hey! Hand ‘em out to the myrmidons too! Everyone gets one!”
The entire group began spreading out over the low hills, holding the flame irreality enhancers in front of them like farmers with divining rods. The wind continued its low whistle, but otherwise the land was quiet. While the others worked, Ambassador Martin climbed a large hill to the east of the spaceship and looked around at the area, his gaze unreadable.
There was a quiet snap somewhere in the distance. Ambassador Martin turned to the north, scrutinizing for the source. There was nothing, although frequent patches of brush and the occasional tree blocked his view of the northern flank of the hill. He shifted his stance slightly, trying to see into the brush.
“Corporal,” he said without turning, signaling with his arm for a myrmidon farther down the hill to join him. “Thermal scan. Look for lifeforms.”
The soldier dropped the visor down on his helmet, twisting a dial until the visor displayed infrared output. “No warm-blooded lifeforms detected. Suggestion: you heard a lizard.”
“Perhaps,” Ambassador Martin said.
Just then a call came from the south. “Hey! I’ve got something!”
The different humans and myrmidons came jogging to where a soldier was standing above a short cliff face. Below him was a large boulder, twenty feet wide, which seemed to block the entrance to a cave. The soldier was waving his scanner back and forth while looking very intently at the flame. Sure enough, at one point in the middle of his swing the flame would suddenly get a lot brighter.
The human who had handed out the scanners came up to the device and looked closely at the flame. “A good extra inch! No idea what that is on the scale, but it’s a sure bet ya just hit the jackpot.”
“So . . . is it in here?” asked one human, going up and putting his hand on the boulder blocking the cave entrance. Strange sigils covered the boulder. They were very worn with time, but still formed a light web across the entire surface.
The people standing on the top of the cliff face walked a little way down to where the slope wasn’t as steep, slid down, and came walking back to consider the blocked entrance to the cave. By this point, Ambassador Martin had come down the nearby hill and joined the group.
The large man fiddled with his scanner, popping off a side panel and pulling out a glass slide with red sigils painted over it, forming a circular pattern of exquisite detail. He held it up against the web of symbols painted on the boulder. The patterns were different, but there was no mistaking the similarities.
“Looks like we found what we came for,” the man said.
“How do we get in?” asked the scrawny assistant.
Without changing his expression, Ambassador Martin raised his arm, pointed his wrist-mounted McMullin gun at the boulder, spun the dial to maximum output, and fired a laser the size of a man’s fist directly into the boulder. There was a large blast, shrapnel flying. One human standing close to the boulder jumped back, yelling, “Hey, watch it!”
A slight haze of smoke from the blast blew away in the breeze, revealing that Ambassador Martin’s shot had only knocked a basketball-sized chunk out of the boulder, leaving the passageway still firmly blocked.
“Suggestion: We will need something bigger,” said one myrmidon.
“Ooh! I know!” said the scrawny assistant. “Let’s go back to the ship and get the antimatter disintegration gun!”
The large man cuffed the boy on the back of the head. “Are you an idiot! That thing packs a 4-kiloton yield! At this range it would vaporize everything for kilometers!”
“I didn’t mean to use it at full power,” said the boy, rubbing the back of his head.
“He’s right,” said Ambassador Martin, gesturing at the large man. “The missile launchers will be sufficient. Everyone, stand back at a safe distance.”
The group moved back from the cave to where a number of rocks provided some natural cover. A couple large missile-launcher-wielding myrmidons lumbered into position, grunting as they shouldered their weapons and aimed at the boulder.
The large man shouted, “Aim! Ready!”
Ambassador Martin glanced behind the group as he again heard some rustling in the bushes above them up the hill. No one else seemed to notice.
There was a large blast from the missile launchers, then an explosion at the mouth of the cave. A cloud of smoke went up, then started to gently blow away, revealing that the boulder had crumbled. A few humans began to venture near the dark entrance.
Then a low growl started up in the darkness. It sounded hostile, hungry, and had a power and depth to it that went far beyond any normal creature. The soldiers nearest the cave began stepping back, raising their weapons.
“Steady,” said Ambassador Martin, raising his McMullin gun.
A pair of eyes appeared in the darkness, then another, then another, then many more. The growl grew until it was a hard, deep yell, sounding as if stones were grinding together. Then there was silence.
There were a few clicks as all the soldiers who still had their safeties on switched them off. All eyes were on the cave.
Then from within the darkness, a sharp voice rapidly called out a string of strange syllables. A bolt of fire burst from the cave, impacting a group of soldiers and exploding on impact, sending them flying.
“Open fire!” yelled Ambassador Martin, blasting at the entrance with his McMullin gun. But even as he shouted, a wave of primal screams arose from behind the group. A horde of strange creatures poured over the large hill, jumping down amid the soldiers. The creatures had warty green skin and were armed with rough clubs, crude bows, and fingernails long and sharp enough to almost be called talons.
The ambassador barely had time to yell “Ambush! Take-” before his entire force became embroiled in battle. The green creatures clawed at limbs and heads, hacking and screaming. The soldiers opened fire with rifles and pistols, the myrmidons trying to swat the creatures away with their riot shields.
One of the creatures landed on a rock behind Ambassador Martin, swinging an obsidian-tipped club at his head. The ambassador spun, reflexively bringing up his arm. The club crunched into the McMullin gun on his wrist, sending sparks and metal flying. Face emotionless, Ambassador Martin whipped a pistol from his belt with his free hand, felling his foe with a single shot.
Another bolt of fire flew out of the cave, the explosion sending bodies flying and covering the battle zone in a cloud of dust. Ambassador Martin found himself in the middle of a clump of myrmidons, their weapons laying down a barrage of firepower to keep the hordes of creatures at bay. A third explosion went off to his side, taking out a clump of soldiers moving to join them.
Something had been off about the angle of the third explosion. Ambassador Martin traced its path and spotted a short figure with a pointed hat on a nearby hill, waving a large staff. He ordered, “There!” and pointed. Next to him, one of the myrmidons with a missile launcher aimed and fired. The figure on the hill shouted something and swung his staff in an arc. A light blue transparent wall appeared in front of the figure, and the missile exploded harmlessly upon impact with the wall.
Before the myrmidon with the missile launcher could fire again, a creature leapt through the air and brought an axe down on the back of the myrmidon’s helmet, shouting a strange string of words. Upon impact with the helmet, the axe surged with a red light, half fire, half something else. The myrmidon crumpled dead. Elsewhere, other myrmidons and soldiers were falling, the figure on the hill and the original assailant in the cave opening up a cross-fire on the melee. A massive roar echoed across the battlefield as an impossibly large figure began to emerge from the cave.
“Fall back to the ship!” yelled Ambassador Martin. He took off at a run, drawing a second pistol and using both weapons to drop the opponents in his path. A few myrmidons broke away with him, the group sprinting toward the spaceship under a hail of arrows and fire. Several myrmidons fell before they rounded a corner of a hill, putting terrain between them and their opponents.
As they continued to run, a large roar sounded behind them, and the ground began to shake. Massive footsteps began coming closer and closer to the group, now down to just three myrmidons plus the ambassador.
“Buy me time with your lives,” said Ambassador Martin, keeping his eyes ahead.
“Yes sir!” replied the myrmidons running alongside him. The three dropped from his view as they turned to face whatever was following them. There was a brief shout, “For the Empire!”, then crunches, rifle shots, and roaring.
As Ambassador Martin got close to the ship, the footsteps started up again. By the time he reached the boarding ramp, they were almost on top of him. He sprinted up the ramp and into the tight passageways of the ship. Behind him, there was a clang of metal and a roar as something too large to fit in the ship tried to follow. The entire ship shook with the impact.
His feet clanging on the metal floor, the ambassador continued sprinting down a hall running down the starboard side of the ship. There was a muffled roar, and then a smash as a dent in the shape of a massive fist appeared in the metal wall to his left. After another dozen feet, another fist-shaped dent was pounded into the wall next to him.
Then he broke into a room cluttered with complex devices and wiring. On the far side was a glass cylinder covered in warning labels. Ambassador Martin rushed to a terminal located next to the cylinder. He pulled down on the activation lever, and the sound of the ship’s communicator powering up filled the hold.
The ambassador picked up a microphone and spoke, “Priority one message to Emperor Wilhelm. I repeat: Priority one message to Emperor Wilhelm. Magic has returned to Earth. I repeat: Magic has returned to–”
The far wall cracked open, rocky fingers the size of tree trunks prying it apart at a seam. Ambassador Martin dropped the microphone and smashed his fist through the glass cylinder. Ignoring the warning klaxon and his bloody hand, he grabbed a standardized tiny storage vial labeled with the symbol for antimatter.
The creature got both hands wedged in the crack in the wall, then ripped the spaceship open with a massive flex of its arms. Revealed was a being seemingly made entirely of rock, impossibly huge. Riding on its back was the figure with the pointed hat and staff. Runes of blue light hovered in the air around it. The rock monster opened its mouth and let out a roar the volume of a jet engine. Coolly, Ambassador Martin loaded the vial into an antimatter disintegration gun, set the weapon to maximum, raised the barrel, and fired.
Please share your thoughts about the story! What do you think happened to Ambassador Martin? How is magic going to affect Earth?