Chapter 43 - Desert
Talmud returned at dawn, and they retired to their coffins with much greater reluctance. The day seemed to stretch into infinity, and their confinement turned to torture, especially for Rowan who fought her growing claustrophobia with each beat of her heart.
Unable to move or sleep, they waited for night to release them from their prisons. Time moved at a snail’s pace while the rocking motion of the camels jarred their bones.
Rowan resisted her terror until her body succumbed to fatigue and she fell into a restless slumber. Even in her sleep state, she realized that her connection to Ariana faded with every step. The distance which separated them had become too large.
The miles covered by the caravan, each day, grew shorter as conditions became more difficult. At nightfall, Talmud again ordered the ritual of making camp and unloading his mysterious cargo. As a trader, and a man of the desert kingdom, he knew the mystery surrounding the chests made his men curious, but he also realized their interest could prove dangerous. If word reached the desert marauders of his unexplained cargo, they might attack hoping he transported something precious.
They traveled in this manner for fourteen days before reaching the edge of what travelers called ‘The Shadowlands.’ Talmud’s fears seemed unfounded, but his men became restless when they realized their heading.
When Talmud meant to leave Marcus, Alena, and Rowan to their privacy that evening, Marcus bid him stay. He spread the map open on the carpet-covered floor of the tent and traced the path documented by those long-ago scribes with his finger.
“Once a place existed, that might not exist anymore, but we have to find it,” Marcus explained, and Talmud studied the map, but they spotted fear at war with reason in his eyes.
“There are stories of a great city which once existed to the west of this place. Its name became lost to memory, but tales of its wealth, the abundance of water that blessed its wells, and the skill of its people remain. Legend states that when traders reached the city after several massive sandstorms plagued the area, they found it deserted,” he continued.
“People speculated that some plague or illness struck it, while others suggested a jealous neighbor poisoned the wells. The animals were dead in their enclosures, and the city lay abandoned,” Talmud watched them for their reactions, which led him to believe they didn’t know this part of the story.
“The desert moves like the waves of an ocean,” Talmud warned with an even intonation, and they glanced at each other.
“Then the passage of centuries must have buried what we’re looking for,” Alena realized, and Marcus frowned.
“Storms and the great black winds can shift dunes in their passing,” Talmud informed them, and they considered this.
“Uncovered by one storm and covered by another,” Marcus concluded, and the thought made their task seem impossible.
“The sand might have buried it so deep that we could stand right on top of it and never find it,” Alena concluded, and Talmud sat back.
“Or not,” Talmud reasoned.
“Is the city gone?” Alena demanded, and Talmud shrugged.
“Sometimes,” he gave his pragmatic answer, and they had to smile.
“Do we continue?” Talmud asked, and Marcus nodded with a weariness that settled in his mind.
“I will leave you to your privacy since I have to speak to my men,” Talmud excused himself.
“This map might be inaccurate. It points to miles of desert; how had they found this place?” Alena asked before fetching the scrolls Marcus retrieved from the merchant boat, and they pored over them, hoping to find a clue, marker, or something to help them find a needle in an ocean of sand.
Every evening of their journey, Talmud spent some time with them, and his intelligence was undeniable. His dangerous appearance hid an inherent fairness and quirky sense of humor.
Marcus waited until they were past the point of no return and approaching their assumed destination before he revealed the scrolls to Talmud, but only the ones that didn’t mention the evil they followed.
“You’re looking for a tomb,” Talmud grasped without effort. “You plan to take from it?” He asked with an unexpected hostility.
“No, the Romans robbed it a long time ago,” Marcus assured him.
“You’re looking for an empty tomb?” Talmud deduced with some disbelief, and Marcus almost smiled.
“Not exactly. The tomb hides a mystery worth much more than the treasure meant to keep it safe,” Marcus revealed, and Talmud considered them.
“A secret that may reveal how a city died and may contain a way to stop it from happening again,” Rowan added, and Marcus stared her down. She refused to lower her eyes and submit before him. It puzzled Marcus that her will did not waiver before his, but her words swayed Talmud. He suspected they had a hidden agenda from the beginning, but his instinct led him to believe they meant him and his men no harm. His honor bound him to stand by his word.
Almost a full day’s travel from their destination they encountered a windstorm. To the vampires trapped inside the closed confines of their caskets, it proved a harrowing experience as the fine dust filled the insides, and choked them to the point of suffocation.
One of Talmud’s guards panicked and ran into the wind which stripped the skin from his body. It damaged his lungs beyond repair, and he died before the storm passed. Talmud informed them of the unfortunate incident at dinner. The search for his body had cost them the last light of day, and they camped only a few hundred feet from where they stopped. Talmud informed them that his men would see the storm and the death of their comrade as a bad omen. In their hearts, they agreed.
The information they gathered gave them a general idea of the area they would have to search, but they had to narrow it down. Rowan had a feeling that if they didn’t leave this desert soon, they would never leave it at all.