A laboratory of invention, a home for stream of consciousness scribbles, passages of undetermined length, and discombobulated story fragments.
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We found ourselves on the edge the desert. The sun had reached its apex, and it appeared to have stalled there, as if its intention was to subdue the most basic of laws of day and night just to make our journey harder.
Our destination lay across that desert: the city of Bhelsset and its witch doctors. Our charge, Maldon, lay dying in our cart. His fever had grown in the last day, and his fevered dreams alarmed us. He spoke in his sleep of a flayed, burned host that would devour the world. He spoke of failures and consequences. We tried to make haste. We failed.
One day into our journey into the desert, Maldon woke, but even as he spoke, his eyes were already looking into the after.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't help you any more."
We had a decision to make. Our charge lay dead, and we had already failed in our mission. There was nowhere for us to go, no one for us to turn to. Behind us what was once our home lay in ruin. The ashes of our cities were probably still smouldering. Ahead of us, across the desolate desert, lived an old enemy at best indifferent to our plight.
Maldon meant to change that, but he hadn't shared his plan with us.
His throat began to bulge. Singh noticed it first. Something pushed against it from the inside. Maldon's mouth opened.
The scorpion fell from his mouth onto the desert sand. It was black, with a metallic rainbow sheen, and it had a bright red stinger at the tip of its tail. The scorpion was the size of an open hand. Quarrid emptied a carafe and trapped it within. He sealed it shut, and we stared at the scorpion in disbelief.
That was when the desert began to shake.
The desert continued to shake once a day, for nine days, for a short time when the sun reached its highest point, until we reached the great oasis Fallom Thae.
Quarrid prayed every day. He was certain the shaking was an omen. He likened it to a grumbling stomach. It was the first sign that the world we knew would be devoured, he would say. I didn't believe in such portends. I didn't believe in prophecies. I believed in chaos, and what life we could eke out within that disorder. Maldon liked that. It was a contrast to his own beliefs, and forced him to look at his own from a wider perspective.
The twins didn't appreciate my beliefs. Most people didn't, but the events of the last few months had bonded us, despite our differences.
We took Maldon with us. He was in the cart, like before, pulled by our donkey, but I felt his weight on my shoulders as if I was carrying him myself.
"I must make it to Bhelsset, no matter the circumstances," Maldon said.
Somehow I doubt he had meant even in death, but with the emergence of the scorpion, which we could hear occasionally tapping against the glass of the carafe in Quarrid's pack, we had decided that maybe the witch doctors would like to see him too.
There was nowhere else for us to go besides Bhelsset. We could do nothing but look to the road ahead. We would finish Maldon's quest, even though we had no knowledge of what that quest entailed, outside a destination.
I saw them in the pool's reflection, standing next to the moon. Four Solteshi guards wrapped in white cloth. The sands of the Gourn desert were good for two things: making glass, and concealing footsteps.
"Lissenians, you are far from home, and you pull with you a decaying corpse. Its stench can be smelled across the oasis. What brings you here?"
"Desperation," I answered. I explained our plight, but I skipped some of the details, including the scorpion. "We are seeking the wisdom of your Witch Doctors."
"The desert shakes, and we find an old enemy encroaching upon our land, dragging a corpse behind them," one of the Solteshi guards said. "You will come with us, Kal-Sem will decide your fate."
We were taken to an encampment on the edge of the oasis. Several large burgundy tents lit only by the moon and stars fluttered in the desert wind. There was no other noise. Our four guards paused when we entered the camp, and they ordered us to stop.
"Something's not right," one of them said.
Another of the Solteshi whistled. It was a high pitched call, three different notes in quick succession, sounded twice. They waited for an answer.
A moment later, our donkey brayed. It was an obnoxious, shrill sounding cry. It tried to tear itself away from its reins, but Singh kept the beast under control.
That was when the apparition came before us. They called her the Lady of Death but there was no such creature. These were fables. Ghosts, scorpions crawling out of corpses, earthquakes in deserts that had never shook before. These were all things that could not be. Things I did not believe in.
I saw my friends around me collapse, the Solteshi too. The Lady of Death whispered something, but I cannot recall her words. My head began to spin. I remember the world turning black, and I remember my face hitting the sand.
Damp cold air filled my nostrils. I felt a light breeze upon my face. I sat up, and after the rest of my senses came back to me I found myself in a unexpected place. I was trapped in a small room with four stone walls, a sliver of a window, and a single locked door fashioned of iron bars.
I tried yelling. I yelled the names of Singh and Quarrid, but I was met with only silence in return. There was nothing beyond the door but a hallway that trailed off to where I could not see. The sound of my beating heart filled my ears.
My head began to spin again. The stone walls danced around me. I knew that sensation, and though it wasn't as strong as before, I knew where I would soon end up. I lay down on the floor, and the dark embraced me once more.
I woke up again sometime in the middle of the night. For a brief moment, I'd forgotten my predicament, and the anxiety that came along with it, but the memories quickly came back to as my back began to ache in protest for having slept on the cold, hard stone floor.
The jailer arrived soon after, torch in hand. He was a large man, whose face was scarcely visible beneath his long, heavy hair, and unkempt beard. I could not place him then, not under the cover of the shadows of the night, but I knew he was not Solteshi.
The man lifted the iron bar that held the door to my prison shut, and set it aside. He then, quite simply, walked away. I yelled after him after pushing my cell door open. He did not reply. He just kept walking, and the flame on his torch grew smaller as it drew farther, and farther away.
I chased and caught up to my jailer, and followed him through the winding passageways of the dungeon. We emerged into a sprawling courtyard beneath a sheath of stars. The walls of the fortress were crumbling, and the fort itself lay in rubble.
Within the grounds of the derelict stronghold there camped a war band. I counted them one hundred strong. Three men were tied and left to hang on posts, they wore Solteshi garb, and there, in the middle of the camp, stood the Lady of Death.
The jailer descended the stairs to the courtyard and once more I followed, as if an invisible chain was tugging non-existent shackles on my hands. Soon, however, the jailer turned off, away from the centre of camp. He entered a small building, and shut the door behind him. I was left alone.
I felt as if a belt had tightened around my heart. I was lost. I looked up to the stars, as if they would have the answers. Some people thought the stars and constellations were the writings of gods, and if we could learn to read them, we would uncover the secrets of the universe. To me, they were simply faint, and distant lights, with as many explanations for their existence as there were stars in the sky.
I decided there was only one course of action for me to take. For a moment, I wondered if I’d really decided anything. If there was only one course of action for me to take, then had the choice really been mine? I put that thought out of my mind.
I strode as confidently as I could towards the middle of the war camp. I looked at my captors, such as they were, but I did not recognise them. Their outfits were black and grey and trimmed with gold that shined under the stars, but I could not place them. They were not Solteshi, nor Lissenian. They might have been Morreni, or Caltanian, but those empires, as well as others, were distant, and unknown to me.
Before I reached the centre of the war camp, I spotted a barrel full of water, and a ladle hanging on its side. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was. I imbibed the water as my captors looked on.
The Lady of Death had skin like caramel porcelain that glowed under starlight, and eyes a green so vivid that it made emeralds envious. Her golden hair cascaded to her shoulders like a gentle waterfall, and her voice sang like a choir in perfect harmony. She wore a gown the colour of the stars.
I’d not been afraid of her, I realised, when I first saw her at the Solteshi encampment. I’d been awestruck by her beauty. My heart lost its rhythm. She wasn’t death, death couldn’t be so beautiful. She was life. She was love. Or so I thought.
I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened. Simply looking upon this woman tempered my mind, stemmed the flow of thought, and hindered the creation of new memories. It was a strange experience, as if I was but a part time observer within someone else's body.
I realised, much later, that all her followers had been like that, only much more far gone than I had been by that point.
"You've brought me an incredible gift, Linneer," she said. Her voice was ethereal, as if she was speaking to you from a dream. "More than any girl could ever ask for."
I don't think I had told her my name.
She picked up the carafe that contained the scorpion, and she pulled free the cork. She tipped the opening to her hand, and the scorpion emerged onto her open palm.
The Lady of Death smiled at the scorpion, and whispered to it words I could not hear. She raised her hand to her lips, and opened her mouth wide. The scorpion began crawling into her mouth. Once it was almost completely through, she tilted her head back, and swallowed.
I wanted to recoil in horror, but I could not move.
I awoke alone in the centre of the courtyard, awash by stars. I raised my hand to my lips and touched them. They felt as lips do right after a passionate kiss; a little numb, and a little swollen. Had I kissed the Lady of Death?
I sat up, and saw in front of me the broken glass of the carafe. It had not been a dream. Oh how I wished that that this whole journey had been but a dream, but this was just the beginning of my nightmare.
We surrounded the city, but its walls were impregnable. They were twice as thick and high as any other, even those our once proud capital, Yerron.
Five months had passed. We established convoys, and brought in some of the comforts of home. We feasted, we drank, we sang, we fucked, and we lived. Once in a while, we forgot there was a war on, and that our enemies were dying of infighting and starvation behind their walls. It was ironic, the very thing that was to protect them, was killing them instead.
I was called in by Captain Len Gyrra, late one evening. My orders were simple. I was to accompany, and guard, a delegation into the city. The enemy was ready to negotiate.
Ethome was a beautiful city. Even from the outside, the walls, as formidable as they were, were built not by traditional tradesmen, but by those instead of the famed Olemurn teachings. They were craftsmen too, in the simplest sense of the word, but they blended masonry with science and art. The didn’t build structures, they built wonders.
But the Olemurn Guild was near extinct now, and their knowledge nearly gone. Those that remained knew how to maintain the structures, but they didn’t have the knowledge, or artistry, to create something new. The reason behind their decline was a simple, and common one: revolution.
I walked through the city streets with the delegation and witnessed a stark contrast between the old and the new. The city had fallen a hundred years past. The new rulers looted the Olemurn’s greatest achievements, and the newer buildings were pale imitations, built with only one purpose: to provide shelter. Beauty had no longer been a consideration.
It quickly became apparent why the looting had been carried out. The city palace was lavish. The floors, walls, and ceilings all depicted sprawling scenes from historical events in the form of mosaics and collections of detailed carvings. Everything was painted in vivid reds, greens, and yellows. This wasn’t art, however. As stunning as it all looked, it was all overwrought. The palace was an exercise in vanity, a symbol of superiority.
In the city, we saw people who were starving. We saw bodies left to rot in the alleyways. We saw a people who were afraid, and who were weary. Within the palace, instead of bodies, we saw food left to rot on tables.
The delegation, including myself, was only four people. I wondered, truly, why I had been sent there. Our escort through the city consisted of twenty guards. Through the palace, six accompanied us. I counted eight that stood in Sovereign's council room, where the Sovereign Monarch himself sat, and waited. I was sent as a guard, but if our enemy had decided to kill us, there would have been nothing I could’ve done to save us.