Elena’s head throbbed and her eyelids felt heavy, but she forced them open. Her entire body felt lifeless. Even her fingers barely quivered when she tried moving her hand.
“Elena? You are alive,” a high pitched voice exclaimed.
She blinked to clear her vision. A brunette haired face hovered over hers. “Ada..?” Her throat felt parched.
“Yes, Elena…I mean Empress.” The young girl backed up a little but Elena could see relief awash on her face.
“What happened?” Elena tried collecting her thoughts. Flashes of black blocks and swirling dust jolted her mind. “The city…”
“You did it, Elena. We have our own city,” Adaline squeezed her hand. She felt warmth seep in.
“What happened to me?” Her body still did not respond to her thoughts.
“You nearly died,” Androl’s deep voice boomed through the room. Elena forced her neck to turn, to see her guardian enter the room. “And you almost killed the others. Are you so daft that you wish to end your empire before it even begins?” The man’s face looked as dark as thunder.
Elena swallowed a gulp, which hurt. She had never seen Androl this angry. “I was following your advice. To build an empire, we needed a show of strength.”
“A show of strength without knowing your own limits or without thought of the consequences can turn into a disaster. Which this nearly did!” Androl fumed.
“But I showed you what I intended to do. You agreed!” she protested, though she knew she had far exceeded what she had agreed with the man.
Androl didn’t answer but his withering gaze made her lower her eyelids. It came easier now but the rest of her body still refused to respond.
“I know I over-stretched. But once I felt the mass of the stone inside the ground, I just had to pull it all out. And what we achieved here will sound a warning bell through the history of this land.”
“You did make quite the mark,” he smiled.
Elena nestled her head in the pillow. She didn’t yet fully know why she listened to a man who’d come to buy her, but for now Androl’s steely determination was on her side.
“You need rest, but we must act quickly. Raising the city has created a deep gorge, splitting the land. We don’t even know how far it goes. But my scouts say that no people have been harmed due to it, which is…magical. But men forget the wonders soon and want answers to the damage caused to their land and property. And kingless men can turn at the drop of a hat. We better give them something to preempt their rage.”
Elena smiled. For once, she’d outthought her advisor. “All magic-wielders will be welcome in the city and all will have a house to stay.”
“All?” Androl raised his brow. “Do you plan to keep extending the walls of the city? Might make the situation worse.”
“Not the walls, Androl; the buildings. We raise the city skywards. One house above another. The amount of rock we’ve pulled out should suffice for creating housing thousands upon thousands.”
Androl opened his mouth to protest. But his lips curled into a half-smile. “You impress me, Elena. It may just work. However, there is a smaller but more pressing matter to be addressed even before – what should be the city’s name?”
Elena turned sideways and pulled her covers over her shoulders. “That’s easy, Androl. We call it Ianthine.”
A loud rumbling jolted the vardo and caused Darius to drop the diary. “What in… Tarvus watch what you ride us over!” Darius opened the slit in front of the van. Tarvus was nowhere to be seen. The two horses, however, were stomping up a dust storm.
“Did he fall off?” Darius muttered as he made for the vardo door.
“Darius….get out of the van.” The door burst open. Tarvus stood, his dress crumpled and the left side of his face bleeding.
Darius picked up the small dagger on the vardo wall and jumped off the vardo. “What happened to you? And watch what you call…” Darius paused as he realized the whole bandit band had halted.
“What is happening?”
Ashen-faced, Tarvus pointed to the south, where a large plume of dust was rising, engulfing Dharya. They had left the village only two days earlier but had made very slow progress.
Darius stepped forward squinting. The ground shook as a loud crack thundered. The tall watchtower bordering the village, crumbled and collapsed beneath the dust cloud.
Barak’s voice rang over the company. “Get into your vans and ride you fools. We will be the next to die.”
Bandits scrambled towards their vans. Darius slammed the door of their vardo shut but paused. “No, we cannot outrun this. We need to hunker down and wait it out,” he called out to Tarvus, who was reining in the horses.
“What do you mean?” Tarvus shouted over the clamour.
Darius turned to the bandits and shouted as loud as he could. “There is no running from a quake. We are already on open ground. Stay here.”
A few bandits stopped, as did a couple of the Tarvus’ former crew but most of them did not pay heed to his warning.
“Tarvus, round up your crew members. I will go to Barak and convince him.” Darius raced towards Barak’s large van.
Many of the bandits had decided to abandon the carraiges and were busy unhitching the horses. Darius danced past the bandits, all the while shouting for them to stay put. “Do not run! The carts are heavy. Stay around them.”
It took him a few minutes to navigate the hullabaloo with the increasing tremors, but by the time he reached Barak’s vardo, the old bandit could be seen riding off on his horse followed by twenty odd bandits.
“Ride after Barak!” Rorash shouted, trying to pull his mount, who wrestled away from him in terror.
Darius sighed and tackled the man to the ground. His steed doubled back and ran off. Rorash punched him in the face as he rolled off the man but the tremors grew under them.
Even as they both pushed themselves up shakily, they saw most of the riders from Barak’s runaway group thrown by the horses, a few of tripped over themselves landing on the pile.
Darius rolled over to Barak’s vardo and pushed himself against the side. Most of the bandits had abandoned trying to get on their horses and clung to the nearest vardo. The tremors increased further as a decorative tile dropped from the top of Barak’s vardo. Rorash jumped in beside him, flashing an angry look.
He ignored it. Most earthquakes he had heard about lasted less than a minute. This one had already gone over three. Several more tiles crashed around him, as a cart toppled over in front of him, landing on a man who was pinned waist down under it. There’s no point trying to help him just yet. His teeth stopped rattling as the tremors wound down.
Darius sprung towards the cart after waiting for half a minute and pushed against it with all his might. The others hadn’t recovered yet but he felt another pair of hands push as Rorash joined in. They pushed the cart away as other men joined and lifted it clean off and tended to the man.
Darius nodded towards the rough bandit but the man simply spat. “Eunuch.” And walked off.
Tarvus came running towards him. From what he could see, a few of the other carts had turned over and spilled the contents on the ground, but people were largely unhurt.
“Are you okay, Darius?” the man shouted.
Darius shushed him, but in the din, the sea-captain’s voice was drowned.
“I am quite all right, thanks to Barak’s vardo. You seem to bear no wounds either.” He held his friend by the shoulder.
“No, but you should come look at what’s happened to Dharya.”
“What?” He moved past a couple of carts with broken wheels and bandits trying to move them, but a large number of the camp had gathered to the south. Even as he approached, he saw dark black plumes rise from where the village stood.
Dharya had disappeared and all that stood was a vast mass of earth, stones and sand. A red glow emanated from where the village had once been.
“Is that…lava?” Darius exclaimed. He’d heard of hot red molten rock erupt from the below the ground, incinerating everything around but those had been restricted to tales from Scragweth Isle off the southern coast.
Most of the people around him watched in awe and fear. The entire ground around Dharya had been raised about twenty feet. Inundations of now solidified lava, mixed with mud flowed where the village had been. Not a trace of any of the dwellings remained and Darius could only guess where Dwimoe’s house lay.
Even from this distance, he could make out a deep gorge with a river of red fire flowing through it. A strong warm wind ruffled his clothes and within moments it turned into a hot loo. Searing heat scorched his skin, worse than the winds he’d faced during a trip through Az’watha. Men hollered and fell down on the ground.
“I need water.” Tarvus croaked and crawled behind an upturned cart.
Smoke and ash nauseated and blinded him. Darius quickly learned to refrain from rubbing his eyes. The dust from his hands made them even tearier. The winds subsided within a quarter of an hour but left all of them wheezing and coughing.
“This was no normal earthquake.” Tarvus commented, taking a swig from a skin he’d pulled out from the cart.
“No, it wasn’t, Tarvus. The tales of Scipio are coming true. I do not believe his writings were a story. They happened. In these very lands. And it is happening again.” Darius looked at the sea-captain.
Tarvus looked at him with disbelief. “This doesn’t feel like corruption of the land, Darius. Sure, it looks bad, but there are no monsters clambering out.”
Darius shook his head. Most of Dharya had disappeared into the gorge and only a few walls stood of the buildings that remained. No, the Corruption is taking over.