Who Slept in the Desert
Sylvia rode in the midst of her cutthroat companions through the oceans of sand in the dead of night. They were an ensemble of bandits who found each other several months prior with one objective in mind-- to plunder the the resting place of the old emperor and become kings themselves. Many had gone and paved the way before her, blazing a trail of their own bones, rusted armor, and vultures settling to feast on their remains.
But she came equipped.
And so have the others, she thought warily, recounting the swords, arrows, and enchanted talismans strapped to their sides. She lived as long as she had on the wrong side of the law by making use of such people. But the fear that always crept inside her was that one day she would manipulate herself into a corner. And her former friends would divide her spoils having left her behind in several pieces.
These ones are nice to me though. Ethan and Nathaniel are always vouching for me. Maybe we can be friends after this. The party had agreed to recruit her when she allowed them to believe she knew where the tomb was. Her first obstacle to forming a solid alliance with them would be to actually lead them to this mythical chamber.
"We'll be folk heroes after this is all over," she said.
Nathaniel chuckled at her thought, "What makes you think we won't still be the villains? The greater the prize the greater the damnation-- depending on the reputation preceding you..."
"And ours couldn't be worse if we burned a whole village down," Ethan chimed in.
"If you're looking to be sung in ballads, miss, then you've picked the wrong company," said their leader, with a ring of self-satisfaction in his voice.
Sylvia felt herself blushing at their remarks but refused to let her comment be dropped as would a child's. "I'm already sung in taverns all across the Eight Provinces, Alexander. In fact my reputation might actually help yours while you're trying to buy the kingdoms of the earth with the wealth that I helped you to sack."
The other men cupped their hands and hollered upon hearing that. Even in the light of the full moon, Sylvia could not see Alexander's reaction.
She hoped that no one saw her eyes shifting around attempting to betray her bold-faced lie.
They continued on for hours on camel back as the moon drifted above their heads, not quite disappearing before the first rays of sunlight reached over the horizon bathing the desert in magenta.
That's when they came upon the monolith.
When it first appeared in the distance, Sylvia assumed it was a city. But as it drew closer, it revealed itself to be one piece of architecture standing amidst the endless waves of desert. On its own, it dwarfed any city she had seen up close and personal. It had the appearance of what she'd imagine an ancient temple to look like. Only this appeared to be chiseled by the gods themselves rather than the mortals who served them.
Carved into it were myriads of columns and statues of figures bearing both human and animal features-- all of them foreboding to look upon, suggesting unfriendliness from whatever it was that put them there.
That apparently did nothing to damper the spirits of the bandit troupe. To which Sylvia felt relief pouring over her. It's almost as if my lies become true the moment I say them.
"That's what tombs look like, boys! Tombs with mountains of gold inside, accompanied with a bright future in store for all of us," she said triumphantly as though she had taken leadership of their company. She chose not to look at Alexander and see his reaction.
"This all checks out in my book," said Ethan as they dismounted in the shade of the building. There was no one to be seen. The monolith loomed high over their heads but seemingly empty. Sylvia still worried to herself that something was amiss.
Nathaniel threw a friendly arm around her and gestured toward the building and the rest of them who were making their way toward the entrance, "Some of us didn't believe you when you said you knew where this was. But I for one am glad we decided to give you a chance and not kill you on the spot for knowing too much about us."
Sylvia swallowed hard at that remark, but allowed herself to enjoy the warmth he was giving. In this underground world of thieves and murderers she had grown accustomed to this sort of talk even among potential friends.
But stepping over bounds was always a real danger. "Maybe you'll kill less people in the future in case they also know of secret treasure hordes and their exact locations," she said.
He nodded, putting some ease to her tension. "You know that's not such a bad idea. Some of us might benefit from taking that to heart," and he gestured with his head toward Alexander who was a few yards ahead of them. Nathaniel then patted her on the back and left her, joining up with Ethan and other nameless members of their ensemble.
She hurried to them at their invitation making sure to avoid Alexander as she went.
The entrance was a colossal mouth open to receive them. The ground beneath her fed into a stairwell winding down into the belly of darkness. Sylvia felt the presence of doom waiting for them all which seemed prepared for this moment since ancient times.
Alexander, who had made his way to the front of the party, withdrew a rod from within his cloak, and upon his command in a lowly whisper, a blue aura emitted from the end, illuminating their surroundings by a couple of yards with each step they took down the enormous staircase.
The descent seemed like years in passing under the growing anxiety she felt for what they would find. She knew in the pit of her gut that their was no treasure here-- not one that a mortal transgressor could cup with her hands and trade for material wealth. Not one that wouldn't kill her and her entire company. If I'm being honest with myself, I'm not convinced this is an old emperor's tomb. This is some kind of sanctuary, and if the gods are real, then we don't have a shred of hope for leaving this place with our lives.
However, It occurred to her that suggesting they turn back may be a worse mistake then pressing forward. I have no choice but to commit to my lie until my grave opens up beneath my feet.