(For other "Stories about Trolls", see the listing.)
The maze of stone corridors Brightmetal and her twenty-two-year-old student traveled through would not be the same on the morrow. This particular solution was only arranged for when a cadet was permitted to be escorted down into the secret depths of the House Of Artifacts. Visiting this secret place was a privilege, and unless the recruit proved himself he would never find it again.
And what secrets must be down here? Ingot couldn’t help but wonder. A powerful weapon never to be revealed unless it was truly needed? A new chemical formula whose practical use and value had yet to be determined? Perhaps one of the Writhing Cylinders! He’d heard rumors of the two elven artifacts, stories passed from one young grub to another between classes. The tales grew more unbelievable and contradictory with the telling. Whatever wonders there might be in this place, The Most Honorable School Of Tactics And Arms -- to whom the pair belonged -- was meant to protect and secure them against all enemies. Beyond that, answers weren’t really necessary.
Ingot knew better than to ask questions anyway, or say anything at all, as Brightmetal’s current silence demanded his own. He followed her steps carefully, well aware of how delicately balanced the traps surrounding him were. Too much weight on the wrong floorstone, a gust of motion too close to the wrong torch, could set off a chain of reactions within the hallways beyond the door. One false move and they could be trapped here, or worse.
As they made their way, the tone and texture of the stone walls darkened slowly. Another corner and Ingots eyes were assaulted by a blast of light. Ingot quietly hoped to glimpse a shard of the elven crystals, but that was not to be. Brightmetal held out a hand, and pointed with the other. They had reached their destination. The lesson. A lone door, a little too tall and too thin than a troll who cared about architecture would consider fashionable. But Ingot knew he was not here to see what lay beyond the door. He was there to see what loomed above it.
The short hall was barely wider than the paths they had taken to get here, three adults across at most. Standing against the wall, he still had to crane his neck to take it all in. The stone figure sat in a concave throne, ensconced in the glaring light of too many lanterns. Smooth alabaster, it reflected so much of that light it was almost painful to look at.
Even after his eyes adjusted, Ingot could not tell if the figure was meant to represent a male or female. Where there should be the firm lines of manly muscles or a rolling drapery of feminine roundness there was only… less. Less muscle, let fat, less everything. Its elaborate and multi-tiered robe could not hide the sheer wrongness of a nearly skeletal form. Its gown was sleeveless, revealing emaciated arms and sharp, knobby elbows. Deathly thin hands clasped the arms of its throne like a predator’s claws.
Rubbing his sore neck, Ingot faced his teacher. His eyes were tearing up from the intensity of it all.
“What is this… thing?”
Brightmetal had a teacher’s most annoying tendency in abundance. The habit of answering a question with a question. “What does it look like? What does its expression tell you?”
“It doesn’t tell me anything! It’s a statue! It’s staring at the wall! Away from us… Above us… Like it doesn’t know we’re here. Or doesn’t care.”
Brightmetal nodded. “They didn’t. You know the stories of our bondage and freedom. How we were brought this land against our will, and rose up against them never to be driven to another shore. What you didn’t know, what only a select few ever will know, is that our ancient enemies could turn their vile shaping magics in on themselves. The Changing Ones they were called then. For each new place a new form to enjoy it in while our ancestors toiled. Yet this was the form they returned to time and again to ride out the spaces in between. Look at it, cadet. It is their True Face.”
Blinking, “What? No!” This was a Palace-Keeper? If anyone but Brightmetal – or her superiors, Hatchet and Grimthorn -- had said these words, Ingot would have called them a liar. “Why doesn’t everyone know about this?” The four Houses of troll society all had their secrets. Intellectual properties that helped define one from another. But this?
”Because our less martial kin may lose their resolve in the face of an enemy this alien.” Brightmetal looked into the young troll’s eyes for the first time. “They know Point-Ears, so all they expect is Point-Ears. If one were to set foot here in this form… All of Underhaven could collapse from panic and it wouldn’t have to lift a finger. We are the ones who must guard this secret, for we are the ones who must be prepared for it.”
“How?” Ingot asked wide-eyed, as determined as he was disheveled. He wanted to help. He wanted to be ready.
The elder troll pointed. “Behind that door there are scrolls, diagrams, tools. The words of our elders who battled their oppressors and lived to tell of it. The knowledge and means to take on the enemy should the day come. One day you may see those treasures for yourself, if you continue to impress Hatchet. But not this day. No, I think you’ve seen enough for one day. Learn well, and you shall be rewarded.”
Brightmetal straightened and turned her gaze back to the pale monstrosity. “Never forget that we were once slaves,” she intoned. “Never forget the honored dead who fought to free us from tyranny.”
Ingot completed the ancient affirmation without needing to be cued. “And never let it happen again.”