|City of Sand|
|Series||Beyond the Veil by Enodoc|
|Previous||Across the Expanse|
|Next||Caracals of Falconscrag|
|← Across the Expanse||Chapter Chronology||Caracals of Falconscrag →|
City of SandEdit
Melisi stared in amazement as she came to the realization that her perspective had been a bit out.
The wide track they had been following did indeed disappear into the gorge ahead, but the track itself was only about a tenth of width of the gorge. What they had assumed was the track, when they were at the top of the mesa, was just the western end of this great canyon, blown into a steep, yet smooth, slope by centuries of desert wind. The minuscule path into the canyon would have barely been visible, clinging to the left side of the gorge. The arch-like structure spanned the width of the canyon, and despite the thick covering of sand, it was possible to make out the vague shapes of windows along its length.
"I think that may have been some sort of gatehouse," mused the King.
"Oh?" asked Melisi, tilting her head and widening her eyes inquiringly, her spiralled headscarf bobbing up and down.
"You see," said the King, taking her hand and leading her to one side to better illustrate his point, "It's in a prime position spanning this end of the canyon. The windows are pointed directly at the only access road, and the path passes right underneath it. What's more, it doesn't seem to be quite big enough to be a residential dwelling." He led her to the edge of the path, and pointed further into the canyon.
"There seem to be a number of these sorts of structure within the canyon," he continued, "but none are quite as ornate. They could be a combination of bridges on top, and residences inside."
She looked up at him, wild with excitement.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" she exclaimed.
"Quite," the King agreed, exchanging a smirk with Sam. He was pleased to have found something that seemed to interest her so much. "Careful as you go, though. Remember this place was sealed off from Aurora for some reason."
They made their way down the path towards the gatehouse. Sam ran ahead, but stopped abruptly not far away. His fur bristled as he let out a low growl.
"Get ready," warned the King, drawing his sword in one hand, and readying a fireball in the other.
Melisi whipped out her pistol. "I hope it's not more of those cat things," she said, hesitantly.
A bug-like creature emerged from the sandy track. It looked a bit like a rockmite, but was smaller and had less of a shell. It also had a long, pointed tail, with what was probably a stinger on the end of it.
"Scorpion!" cried Melisi.
"Back off, Sam," warned the King.
The dog did as he was told, edging backward away from the creature.
The scorpion started to scuttle forward, and Sam bolted, darting past the King as he loosed his fireball. It didn't seem to have much effect.
"Ugh, must be resistant to fire," he frowned.
Melisi fired a few rounds from her pistol as the King closed in with his sword. One of the rounds shot off the creature's tail.
"Woo!" she cheered.
"Nice one!" called the King, as he cleaved the scorpion in two.
They heard a shuffling sound and saw the sand ahead begin to writhe.
"Oh dear, here we go!" shouted the King, tossing his sword to his other hand and conjuring a ball of electricity with his now-free Shock gauntlet.
Scorpions popped up all around, and the King started carving his way through them. Melisi managed to shoot a few of them down, but was not fast enough to stop them from swarming around her. The King, noticing she was getting into trouble, vaulted over the mass of scorpions and landed in front of her.
"Quick, grab my hand!" he shouted, sheathing his sword and waving his hand in her general direction. "It will ground you through me so you don't get zapped by this," he indicated his other hand, in which he still held a growing ball of lightning. She grabbed hold.
The King cast his hand into the air, and the electricity radiated outwards. All the scorpions within a ten metre radius disintegrated. Those that remained were soon full of holes delivered by the King's rifle and the Auroran's pistol.
"We really should get you a sword," he told her as they continued down the path. "We can't have you getting surrounded like that. Have you ever used a sword before?"
"Umm..." She hesitated, glancing at Sam, "If you think that's a good idea."
She looked up at him innocently, eyes wide again, hoping that her expression would be enough to convince him that she had answered his whole question.
The King faltered slightly in his step, as he realised she wasn't actually going to answer the important part of the question he had asked.
I guess she doesn't want to admit to not knowing how to use one, he thought to himself.
"Well, not to worry!" he said, cheerily. "I'm sure you'll pick it up in no time!"
She smiled at him gratefully.
Melisi was glad that she'd lost the old sword; it had probably fallen into the chasm when the floor gave way back in the cave. In this way, she could come into swordsmanship seemingly with no prior knowledge. She considered how long it had been since she had used a sword properly, and thought it probably wouldn't be very hard to convey herself as a novice again.
As she walked along close to his side, she realised she was still holding his hand. He either hasn't noticed, or he doesn't mind, she thought, nervously.
They approached a door in the side wall underneath the gatehouse. Melisi, not wanting to end up in a socially-awkward situation, discreetly removed her hand as the King went to examine the door. It was covered in sand, just like the building itself.
"I think this probably goes up there," he mused, looking over his shoulder. "But this sand... this really is a Prism-load of sand. More than even the wind could deposit in 800 years. Besides, the wind should have whipped up enough sand to erode this stone away..." — he brushed the sand away from the door — "but it's still in really good condition."
The King pushed the door open and they headed inside, up a narrow spiral staircase and into the gatehouse.
"Oh my!" squeaked Melisi, jumping backwards. A pair of vacant eyes stared back at them from across the room.
"It's some sort of statue?" the King wondered, moving in to have a better look.
"It's very life-like," agreed Melisi, "but it's definitely inanimate."
The King tapped the statue. "Sand..." he breathed.
"The Zoryans must have had some very skilled sculptors if they were able to create statues out of sand," marvelled Melisi.
"Why have a statue in the gatehouse? Aren't they more for decorating someone's own house?"
"True, but look at what he's wearing. That could well be a guard uniform. Perhaps the statue was commissioned for the Captain of the Guard?"
"Sort of like a reward for many years of service? Yeah, could be."
"This is great! A snippet of Zoryan culture preserved as a statue. I wonder what else we'll find."
Woof! said Sam. He was standing next to a sand-covered desk on the far side of the building. The King and Melisi picked their way across the sandy floor over to him.
"Look at that view!"
The King stopped to see what she was pointing at. Out the window to the west, the mesa they were on top of that morning was clearly visible. On the other side, the city of Zorya spread out beneath them, the closest properties located directly underneath the arch structure they were currently inside.
"So what have you got there then, Sam?" the King asked his faithful friend.
He rummaged through the sand on the desk, and pulled out a number of rolls of paper.
"What did you find, Sire?"
"Let's have a look," said the King, unrolling one of the packages. "Oh, it's a map. I do love a map." He handed the paper to his Auroran companion.
"Looks like the Windswept Expanse. And it appears that mesa is called Falconscrag."
"Here's another one. This one looks like it must be a plan of the city."
"Oooh, that could be useful."
"Indeed. We can use that when we're exploring later."
"Let's see... this one seems to be a bulletin to the gatehouse: To the Guard of the Western Gatehouse:
Be on the look out for caracals entering the city from Falconscrag. A number have been found within the city over the past few weeks, scavenging on scraps. One was even discovered in one of the merchants' stalls. It is your duty to keep wild animals out of the city, and that includes caracals. I hope you're not confusing them with housecats.
At the bottom here there's an illustration of one of those desert cats. Seems like they're called caracals."
"Also sounds like they were roaming the city even before it was deserted," Melisi pointed out. "I'm not looking forward to spending the night here; with no people around any more, they're probably all over the place."
The King looked out of the window. The sun was beginning to set behind Falconscrag, and long shadows extended across the city.
"This is the most defensible position we're likely to find. It would probably be best if we stopped off for the night here."
"Mmmm, you're probably right. Alright then."
"Don't worry, Sam and I will make sure no caracals get in here."
The King brushed off a sandy chair and set it down in the middle of the gatehouse beside the sand statue, facing the door.
"We've got this, right Captain?" He glanced at the statue and continued setting up camp.
After a moment, he stopped, and stared at the statue again.
"What's up?" asked Melisi, concerned.
"Hmmm, for a moment I felt as though the statue was listening to what I was saying." He went over to it and tapped on its shoulder again. Nothing happened.
"Must have imagined it."
"Don't do that!" Melisi cried, punching his arm. "This place is creepy enough as it is!"
* * *
Melisi awoke blearily, wondering what had disturbed her sleep. It was early morning, and still dark outside. The King was dozing in his chair, and Sam was snoozing peacefully at his side. The statue was doing absolutely nothing in the corner of the room.
"I guess it was nothing," she said to herself. She was just settling down again when she noticed something glinting green in the darkness outside. She made her way to the window and peered out. Something was bounding across the rooves of the buildings below, carrying an item in its mouth which was shimmering in the moonlight. As it passed underneath, it looked up at the gatehouse and tilted its head to one side. Melisi recognised its facial features.
"Sire! Sire! There's a caracal down there!"
"What? Where?" cried the King, sitting up in his chair. He hurried over to join Melisi at the window. Just as he arrived, the caracal bounded off into the darkness.
"Looks like it was just scavenging. It'll be long gone by morning; don't worry about it."
* * *
The King collected up the remaining papers from the desk and stored them away in his pack.
"We can look at the rest of these later. Let's head outside and look around."
They left the gatehouse and continued down the path that clung to the side of the gorge. A bit further along, a large recess opened up to the side of the path. Steps had been cut into the recess, descending to the canyon floor below. Ahead, the path led on to another of the structures that spanned the width of the canyon. The King led the way down the steps to the floor of the canyon. In front of them, small buildings spread in all directions. They appeared to have a similar construction style to those in Aurora, but were again covered in sand. It was impossible to see into some of the properties due to the extent to which they were buried.
Arf!" barked Sam. He ran frantically around in circles, then started to dig in the centre of what may have once been a market square.
The King hurried over, and pulled out a spade, seemingly from nowhere. He dug a small pit where Sam had indicated, and eventually withdrew a round, metallic object. It was adorned with an ornate green and gold lattice pattern in the shape of a stylized sun.
"What is that?" asked Melisi.
"I'm not really sure," replied the King, turning it over. "Kinda looks a bit like some of the trophies in Dad's trophy room."
"Oh? Which ones?"
"The Temple of Light Seal, the Ice Key, the Sun Key, and the Storm Key."
"Do you think it's some sort of key, then?"
"Well indeed it could be! We'd need to find some fancy door for it to open, though."
The King pulled out the wad of papers from the gatehouse and started thumbing through them. He handed the plan of the city to Melisi.
"Hold on to that one, let me know if you spot anything useful."
"Of course, Sire."
Melisi began to study the city plan. Not far from the market square, she spotted a structure sticking out from the canyon walls which also seemed to extend quite a way into the rock behind.
"Sire? This city appears to have a temple like ours."
"Really? That's interesting. How can you tell?"
"It's really too big to be anything else. They built it right into the canyon wall, like Aurora's is built into the cliff face. There's a great open area outside with nothing in it aside from some landscaping. Oh, and it's labelled 'Temple'."
The King looked up at her.
She poked her tongue out playfully.
"Apparently," she goaded, "It also has a library."
The King stopped flicking through the papers.
"A library?! Let's go!" he shouted.
She grinned, pocketed the plan, and hurried after him.
They made their way past sand-covered buildings towards the location of the temple. On the plaza outside, they found an old fountain that was silted up.
"Doesn't look like this has seen water for centuries," Melisi said, sadly.
They spun around. Sam growled.
From inside the temple, a caracal pounced towards them. Melisi dodged it deftly as the King drew his sword.
Raawl! Another two appeared in the doorway, snarling.
The three caracals circled around the adventurers, watching their every move.
Suddenly, one launched itself at the King. He raised his sword straight towards it, and the cat impaled itself. Swiftly, Melisi fired at her nearest assailant, then spun around and shot the other. She struck them both right between the eyes.
The King and Melisi nodded calmly to each other, then both sighed with relief.
The King peered through the temple doorway, and edged carefully inside. Like the temple in Aurora, the first room contained some candles and a small altar. Passageways led off to the left and right.
"The library entrance should be just down here," pointed Melisi.
"Well that didn't go too badly!" exclaimed the King, cheerily. "Now let's see what we have here..."
The door to the library was closed. Three circular slots were embedded in the exposed opening mechanism.
"Darn, looks like it's sealed,"
"Do you think that key would open it?"
"Well probably," he replied, taking out the metal object and twiddling it around, "But we need three."
He fished out the documents and started flicking through them again.
"Ah yes, here we are.
The Library is sealed with three metal seals, each one to be kept in the custody of its nominated guardian until such a time as they are needed."
The King set the seal down in the sand beside him.
"These guardians are designated as follows:
The Seal of Zorya: Granted to..."
As he began to read, a caracal pounced out of the shadows.
"Aaah! Quick!" shouted the King, fumbling for his sword.
The caracal did not seem interested in them. Instead, it snatched up the metal seal from the sand, and darted away. Melisi fired a volley of shots after it.
"No! Missed!" she cried, as the thief sped out of the temple.
"We need to get after it!" shouted the King, hastily shoving the documents back into his bag.
They raced out of the temple, but there was no sign of the caracal anywhere.
"Where do you think it went?" asked Melisi.
"Back to the Falconscrag Mesa, I expect," he replied, tightening his turban. "Ready to brave the wind again?"
She nodded, her spiralled headscarf bouncing up and down, "Let's go!"