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Chapter 10 ~ The Aesuran Wastelands

M a y a

The days merge into one aging, painful journey. Night and day combined into one long stretch of bleak colour before darkness.

I can’t remember when I stopped screaming, or crying for that matter. My lips are drying and cracked blood leaking from the sores. I don’t need to glimpse my reflection to know my eyes are sunken and shadowed by the lack of sleep and nutrition. They haven’t fed me properly in days, not that it matters to them, not where I’m going.

On the brink of starvation and sanity, I can feel the last remaining pieces of me start to slip away. I’m not ready to let Maya go, what stands in her place is nothing of her gentle, inquisitive ways.

I’m frightened, no, terrified. Though I’m numbed by a numerous amount of things I can feel the panic bubbling up in my hollow gut.

My fate is set, my soul to be locked away where no one can find me. No family, no friends, no Kian.

The mere thought of him clenches my shrunken stomach into knots. He is a ghost, a reminder of a world I was torn from, a world we had decided to leave behind.

I suppose he did, though not the way I would have wished on anyone.

Tears prick my eyes as I wonder what his thoughts were in his last few moments of life. Did he think of me, did he wish to see me one last time just as I wish now.

I blink back my tears as I shake him from my mind. There is no use crying over ghosts. He is gone and soon so shall his precious Maya.

The rolling wagon comes to a grizzling halt, the horses grunting as they are pulled to a standstill. My heart picks up as despair washes over my face. I picture myself running, far away from this place, far away from the gates that will hold me prisoner, far from the feeble body I have been left with.

I sense the soldier as he walks around the back, his footsteps crunching into the loose gravel. The door clicks as the lock lifts and the door opens to a gloomy light. A hiss escaped my lips as I squeeze my eyes shut, turning my face away, too used to the endless, stifling darkness.

The hands that grab my arm aren’t gentle as they drag me out of the wagon and thrust me into the open, my shackles clanging with every movement.

When I finally am able to open my eyes, letting them adjust to the light I find myself surrounded by menacing caves, heavily guarded.

Behind me a few miles down the borders of the city. Scraggly trees are dotted around, their branches twisted and evil looking, bare of leaves.

I’m shoved forward, the wind picking up my mangy, tattered curls. My legs tremble with effort as I move them forward one after the other.

My chains catch on loose roots and I stumble, crashing to the floor, reopening the healing wounds on my wrists and ankles. No one aids me as I try to lift myself up, my dignity left somewhere in the ashes.

Finally I find myself back on my feet, moving forward at a snail’s pace, slow and unsteady like a newborn calf. I’m lead through the mouth of the caves, the guards not even glancing in my direction as I’m led down further and further into the darkness. Closer and closer to my end.

K i a n

The heat is stifling, my patience thin and my temper growing with the rising temperature, but the grin that spreads across my face is involuntary. I simply can’t help it, the joy rendering me unable to even sit still atop my steed.

I slow my horse and jump off, motioning for Rena to follow.

We’re finally here.

“This is the place,” I tell her once she appears at my side.

She looks around the desert plains with one eyebrow raised. She has a certain look on her face the reads her lack of enthusiasm, telling me she isn’t exactly impressed by what she sees.

“What am I supposed to be looking for exactly?” she asks her eyes wandering over the oceans of sand surrounding us.

I roll my eyes. My lack of patience unable to tolerate her crude remarks. Pulling out the Chronicle of Words, I open its pages nearer its centre.

Rena and I look at one another, before I begin to read the runes out loud, my other hand tracing the written ones with the tip of my index finger.

Once I finish reading, my eyes look out at the huge space in front of me, but in the instant I brace myself, nothing seems to happen.

I let out the huge breath of air I’d been holding in and stare down at the sand in defeat.

“Well so much for that approach” I huff.

Rena raises her brow at me and gently pries the book from my grasp, shaking her head and muttering something I can’t quite catch, under hear breath.

She begins to do the same as what I had just done, mimicking me perfectly. I begin to tell her that it won’t work, but I suddenly catch sight of her runemark burning to life, throbbing with energy and magic.

My words get lost in my mouth as I watch her speak the runes, drawing them against the page, her long lashes fluttering as she focuses on the chant.

I can actually see them. Each spread out and glowing a rustic red colour, burning invisibly into the page, while leaving no trace of its existence. It’s so raw and exhilarating that I barely remember to breathe.

I just hope to the Gods that it works.

Rena finishes the incantation and then looks at me with a weary smile. It must have worked, her glamour going from a piercing rustic red to a barely visible shade between watered blood and burnt skin.

I’m suddenly pulled from my stare when I hear a cry from the skies. Looking up, I see Barnie circling overhead. He seems on edge, yet there is no danger in sight. I can only wonder what could possibly be bothering him, simply putting it down to an animalistic sense.

As I think this, the ground begins to tremble and I find myself staring at Rena as a dawning dread begins to envelop me. She stares back, with the same look sketched across her face.

We both know what’s coming and the danger we face though this time I’m not sure that we can stand our ground against this beast, but I do know one thing I refuse to go down without a fight.

R e n a

My mind is telling me not to panic, but my body is saying otherwise, the dread unevitable. This isn’t going to be a fair fight.

With Kian wounded and myself drained of energy my glamour almost gone, we haven’t really got much of a chance.

With the little time we have left, I quickly glance over at the horses, startled by the quaking, but instantly shake my head of the thought. It wouldn’t possibly work anyway.

We can’t outrun it, we can’t fight it for long. We’re going to die.

All this way, to get killed by a tunnel worm in the Talmahi Desert in the middle of the Aesuran Wastelands. Our bones crushed to dust among the sand, just perfect.

I stare at the sand, unable to move and half expecting it to cave in at any moment.

When it doesn’t, I cock my head to the side, puzzled yet still uneasy. Instead of creating a sinkhole, the sand begins to slowly splurge upwards, quickly creating a huge mountain, sand flying everywhere as it rises.

The horses bolt, stopping a few hundred kilometres away, leaving me to realise our only option is to do the same. Not leaving any more time for second thoughts, I grab the back of Kian’s tunic and slide down the ever growing hill of sand, all the way to the bottom, keeping him close behind me. Barnie however is nowhere in sight.

The havoc the sudden movement is creating turns into a whirlwind of flying sand, converting the heated calmness into a huge sandstorm. With no other option than to find our way blindly, we shut our eyes firmly and run with our hands clamped together, both of us unwilling to lose each other in the sudden wild weather.

I don’t let us stop, until I no longer feel the sharp grains rubbing roughly against my face. Tentatively, I open my eyes and turn to face Kian. As soon as my eyes find him I splutter with laughter at the sight. To say that his face and hair are orange is an understatement, the only relatively normal thing about him is his eyes.

He looks ridiculous, but then I must look a sight, his laughter contagious as he regards me as well.

Brushing the sand from my face and hair, I watch as Kian attempts to do the same, a glint of amusement still playing in his eyes.

In all the commotion I’ve lost sight of Barnie, but I dismiss the worry quickly knowing he’ll be safe in the skies.

I’m about to make a remark, when I suddenly take full notice of the heap of sand washing away behind him, to reveal a hidden gem. No longer a mountain of sand, but a tall cylinder shaped building, jutting out from under the sandy depths, the ancient stone walls rubbed smooth, the arched windows spouting sand like a fountain.

I stare up at it in awe, unable to hide the emotion from my face. I feel Kian frown at me, a puzzled look on his face that I hardly register until he follows my gaze toward the huge ruin behind him.

My eyes fall back to him as I notice his reaction, the joy immediate as he begins to prance around in a circle, jester style. It throws me, watching him be so happy that he’s involuntarily dancing before me, while I stand bemused and unable to utter a word.

“By the Gods, what are you doing?” I ask finally, my lip twitching as I bite back my smirk.

He freezes, as he realises what he’s doing. Instantly hanging his head, his hand rubbing the back of his neck bashfully, though I see the glint of excitement still flashing in his eyes.

This time, I can’t help but smirk at him. He really is the strangest person I’ve ever met.

He turns and gives me a feeble laugh as he continues to rub the back of his head.

I roll my eyes and grin, my legs moving forward as I start to make my way towards the hidden treasure.

“Come on prance-a-lot,” I tease as I nudge past him.

K i a n

Getting in proves harder that what I had first thought.

The sand covers the first couple of floors of the library and so we have to climb the slippery loose sand up to the third floor and crawl through one of the arched stone windows.

Rena ties her shawl around the small pillar in the centre of the arch and we slide down safely to the ground. And I thought scaling the mounds of sand was hard.

But once we’re safely inside, I realise things are about to get a lot harder. To say that the library is huge is an extreme understatement.

I don’t think I even dreamt about seeing these many books in my lifetime.

The rows and rows of dusty leather bounds is entirely overwhelming and the floors go so far down that even the darkness swallowing the endless levels cannot tell me where it ends. My curiosity gets the better of me as I look over the bannisters, the drop levelling on immense, my stomach squeezing from sudden vertigo.

I can only assume this place is true to its legends, going down, deep under the ground and stretching for miles upon miles. From where I stand it looks never-ending.

Finding the chronicle of ages is going to be harder than I originally thought.

“Let’s split up, we’ll cover more ground that way,” I explain to Rena once I’ve finished marveling the view.

She stares at me as if I’ve gone mad. I don’t think she likes this plan.

“This is the last place we should split up, this place is endless and who knows what’s lurking in its walls,” she says as she scans the place, her eyes flitting this way and that like an animal trapped in a cage.

Actually, when she puts it that way, she has a point. I nod in agreement.

I motion for her to cross over the stone bridge to the other side and I follow closely behind her.

Allowing myself a moment to glance at the edge, the shadows looms up almost menacingly and before I let it unnerve me any further I swallow the lump in my throat and rush after Rena, who by now waits impatiently for me on the other side of the bridge. I reach her and her face is set in a scowl.

“What is it now?” I ask her, unsurprisingly tired of her sarcasm and snipey remarks.

“Well seeing as you think you’re the brains of this so-called operation, you tell me how we’re going to find the book genius,” she argues, her arms crossed, her eyes expectant.

I open my mouth to reply, but then find that I can’t.

She’s right, this place is huge. It could take us a lifetime to find the book, and that’s if we’re lucky. Many have tried and failed.

I refuse to look her in the eye and focus my attention on kicking around the sand that seems to be scattered all over the ground.

Hearing her sigh is what makes me look up. She looks defeated in some way and at first I can’t understand why.

“Ok, we’ll split up but on one condition. Neither of us leaves this floor. Agreed?” she says as she stares intensely into my eyes.

“And we meet back right here,” she adds, her tone daring me to argue.

I set my mouth is a thin line and nod my agreement. She gives me a slight nod of the head before turning her back on me and heading down one of the isles. As I watch her, I suddenly remember something important, a warning I’d read whilst navigating.

“Rena remember, take only what you need, but never from ill,” I warn her, remembering the tales I had read of this place as well as the warnings.

She raises her brow at me over her shoulder, but nods before turning her back to me once more.

I watch her go, her red curls flouncing over her shoulders, before I turn left and head down another isle a little further off.

As I go, Maya creeps into my thoughts. It should have been her and I exploring the ruins, discovering all this. The pain that comes with her memory surprises me.

I’m pulled from my thoughts of her when I hear a distant noise. An odd sensation spreads over me and settles in my gut, though I’ve come to a halt I eventually carry on my way. But I can’t shake the sensation that something doesn’t feel right.

Maybe Rena was right. Maybe we should have just stuck together.

R e n a

Ever since we got in here, something has been nagging at me.

I don’t know what it is; a voice, maybe even an instinct. All I know is that a sensation has overwhelmed my better judgement. It’s calling me and I have to answer, to somehow get to it. To ignore it would be an almost impossible feat.

I hear Kian’s footsteps fading into the opposite direction and though the idea of us splitting up has me feeling uneasy, I still manage to somehow feel relieved.

I listen until his echoing shuffles disappear off to the left, the shadows of shelves encasing his outline until he is lost to my sight and I continue on the way I’m headed.

The sensation strengthens, the call getting louder and sending a shiver down my spine, unbeknownst to me the rustic rune on my forearm beginning to glow. I’m getting closer. The sound floats through my ears and into my mind like a thousand voices merged into one, though not entirely in sync. I zigzag my way through the bookshelves stashed with books and draped with sand until I come to a circular opening.

A huge marble pedestal stands ground in its centre, polished by sand though I can tell by the marble and gold from which it’s carved it is hundreds of thousands of years old. The tall bookshelves encircle the space, giving off and air of a somewhat regal manner.

Though the scene is awe inspiring and something to marvel at, I find myself distracted. I barely notice the ancient regal aura this place portrays, because my eyes are glued to the book lying on the altar like stand.

I march right up to it, not even thinking twice as I trace the cover and spine before I grab it, fulfilling some sudden urge.

The voices in my head let out what can only be described as a sigh of relief and dwindle from meaningless whispers to silence. I dust the sand away softly, with the gentlest caress and before contemplating the book in my hands, my runemark ebbing with contained power, its rustic red light glowing stronger and brighter then before.

The cover is sewn from dark leather, with gold clasps and beautiful silver embroidery stitched along the outline.

Though I can sense the aura of age surrounding this book, the leather isn’t worn, the clasps shine bright and not a single page is torn. The only sense of age it holds is the browning, curling edges of the thick pages.

I hear a sudden noise pulling me out of my somewhat trance, tilting my head to the side as a natural reaction. After a few long moments of silence, I put it down as being nothing or perhaps a small harmless wild creature and turn my focus back to the book.

I then notice the rune etched into the front and recognise it straight away as the rune Ós; rune of the Æsir. A symbol of the gifted ones, of the gods.

My eyes widen as I begin to fully realise what this legendary book actually is. Even I had heard of this scripture.

It had been rumored for thousands of years having long been said that it has existed for centuries, long before Ragnarök took place and as far as Kian’s legends go is even more sacred than the Books of Old. I can’t help but marvel at it.

Because what I have grasped between my fingers isn’t just any old book. This is the sacred Book of Odin. A book no mere mortal has come across of his own sheer will.

I’m drawn out of my fascination by another sound and sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. I spin as I slip back into the shadows, the book of Odin tucked carefully under my arm, my runemark facing inward hiding its glow.

I see her almost instantaneously. A girl no older than myself with olive skin and hair as black as tar, silently pacing through the aisles. Her quick eyes flick from left to right as she scours the area around the altar. I silently back away further into the shadows as she finishes her round and slips out of sight.

I can only presume she is simple mortal folk, a scavenger. Her tanned skin and hair as black as raven feathers pulled into a complicated array of plaits and twists give her away as desert folk. Clearly from a surviving desert tribe, these lands are her playground meaning she is a dangerous but substantial adversary.

As she slips from my view I notice the glint of a machete she’s carrying on her person.

I silently slip the Book of Odin into my satchel and slip out of my hiding spot to follow after her while mentally curse myself for not being more vigilant. I pass an array of bones scattered, polished clean by the sand and retrieve the sword from its bony grasp before carrying on my way, tracing the girls footsteps with urgent caution. I mentally curse inwardly, I should have never let myself get so distracted.

All my mind can process is stealth and using it to get to Kian and warn him fast.

We’re not alone.

K i a n

I lose myself further into the maze of shelves stacked with thousands upon thousands of books, scouting each of them for the Chronicle of Ages, but I still haven’t had any luck. I let my mind wander as I continue my search, wondering all the while if Rena has had more luck than I.

I’m still searching, my mind elsewhere and my heart sinking as I slowly lose hope, when I hear footsteps.

I smile as I’m pulled from my thoughts, realising Rena has turned back to come and find me. I’m not sure what it is about this place but I don’t like being here, maybe it’s the thought of Maya suffering that unnerves me. A reminder that her blood lies on my hands, whilst I remain free and more importantly alive. Though I doubt it could be the cause for my jumpiness, I still feel that something isn’t quite right.

I start to make a move towards the sound, but stop, a frown emerging on my face. The footsteps come closer, but now that I’m focused and listening, they don’t sound like Rena at all. Her steps are quick and light, the ones I hear are slow and heavy as the echo down the rows and rows of books.

They sound unsure and clumsy, as if the person taking the steps was being wary of his surroundings.

As the realization hits me that Rena and I are not alone, I begin to back away down the aisle as quietly as I possibly can, my eyes scanning the shadows ahead.

The stranger stops once or twice and I make sure to stop in sync with him. I’m sure if I can hear him, he’ll be able to hear me just as well.

As the stranger continues to walk forward, I decide to take my chance. Swivelling around and as quickly as I can I dart around the corner, bashing into someone as I make my attempted escape.

Relief floods through me for only a moment, until I step back and realise that the person I’ve collided with isn’t Rena.

He looks to be around the same age as me but his skin isn’t olive like mine, but a deep chocolate colour that diminishes every feature other than his eyes which are an odd shade of yellow. His masses of black curls have been dragged into a long braid that reaches down his lower back, the sides shaved off to reveal odd scarification and markings. I don’t have to look at him twice to know that he is dangerous and certainly not a friend.

He seems a little dazed as he takes me in and so I use these few seconds to my advantage and try and dart around him to freedom, but as I move he snaps out of his stun and grabs me, a dagger flipping open in his hand. He’s unnaturally quick, but I manage to shout out before he can cover my mouth and pull the dagger close to my neck.

My eyes scan for Rena as my captor drags me back toward his fellow team member. I’ve heard of desert folk and their scavenger packs so I know there must be more of them out there.

I just pray they haven’t got to her too.

R e n a

I lightly kick the girl’s limp shoulder with the tip of my boot. I hadn’t intended to kill her, but it had soon become clear it was her life or mine and I had Kian to worry about.

Following her undetected had been one of the more simpler tasks. She was cocky and not in the least bit cautious. Getting up behind her had been surprisingly easy. Killing her proved a little harder, it sparked dark memories of the past, memories I’d rather keep unearthed.

I look over her lifeless body once more, a shiver running down my spine. I move quickly, bending down and relieving her of her machete. She won’t be needing it anymore.

Without another moment’s hesitation, I begin to make my way cautiously to where I had last seen Kian, until I hear a shout.

It’s quick, but I hear it as it echoes along the sandy shelves and I recognize it straight away as Kian’s.

From the muffled noises that follow I realise the girls accomplices have captured him, which doesn’t exactly surprise me. He’d never really called out to me as the warrior or hunter type, he was clumsy and susceptible to danger. As far as I was concerned suppose he’d always be the damsel in distress in my eyes.

I forget my silent tactics and begin to run towards the shuffling noises and it doesn’t take me long to find them.

There are three of them, not including the girl I’d overcome. Two men and one boy with an eerie similar look to the girl.

The biggest of them is bald; the other is a little smaller and less beefy, a huge scar stretching diagonally across his face, distorting his features and interrupting his hairline.

Kian has his mouth covered by the biggest man and is struggling and squirming in his captor’s grasp, though it does nothing to help him escape his clutches.

The boy’s eyes go from me to the machete in my hand, he doesn’t miss a beat.

Stepping forward and pointing his blade at me with burning anger in his eyes, he speaks.

“What have you done with Tatiana?” he demands.

I ignore the coolness that spreads through me and simply grin at him, with all the menace I can muster. I can see the little hint of hope die in his eyes, his anger wavering as it grows.

“She no longer walks in the realm of the living,” I reply, twisting the blade between my fingers, my eyes flashing as they lift to meet his.

The anger spikes, I see it flare in his dark eyes, exactly the reaction I had wanted.

With a roar he lashes out at me, his blows are hard but not direct. He doesn’t realise that he’s played right into my hands and quickly enough I have the upper hand. Scarface quickly joins us, though his blows are slightly more concise than his comrade’s.

But I’m quick on my feet, dodging each of their blades in a daring dance. I grin in amusement and shake my head at them as our swords collide in a clash of metal.

“Now that’s not very fair, two against one” I say, pouting.

“And against a lady such as myself, you two ought to be ashamed,” I add, emphasizing fake shame as I jump back.

The two of them growl and fly forward, swords gleaming and I can’t help but smile at them, taunting them further.

K i a n

It’s terrifying watching Rena battle it out against these wildlings, but by the look on her face, she seems to be having a blast and it’s clear to even me that she can hold her own.

Not that I can say the same for myself. The brute holding me in place doesn’t plan on letting me go anywhere and the hand covering my mouth smells absolutely foul.

As I try to think of a way to escape his viper grip, out of the corner of my eye I suddenly spot a row of altars. I strain my eyesight and see that only one of them carries a book.

Deep down, I know that it’s the Chronicle of Territories, I can feel it in my bones.

But with Rena occupied and me caught in a human trap, there isn’t any way of me getting my hands on it.

Squirming hasn’t aided me thus far, so I try a new tactic by standing absolutely still. Slowly his tightness on me loosens slightly, his hand lowering a few inches from my mouth. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to help me.

Suddenly without warning, I lift my head and sink my teeth into his hand hard, managing to draw blood. I elbow him in the gut as I do so, sending him sprawling backwards slightly. He shouts out in surprise and let’s go of me.

I take my chance and make a run for the altar, dodging his swipes at me.

I don’t need to look twice to know that I’m right. It is the third Book of Old. Without another moment to waste, I snap it shut and cram in into my satchel just as the large brute makes a run at me.

I turn back to see Rena render the man with the scarred face unconscious before turning back to the boy and grinning.

“See? Now that seems a bit more fair don’t you agree?” I hear her taunt.

I can see she’s playing with him, mocking him.

Suddenly hands are on me again and I mentally curse myself for letting myself get distracted by Rena’s actions instead of focusing more on my own.

The man lifts me into the air, winding me just as I shout for Rena.

There is a sudden jolt of pain at the back of my head and I immediately begin to see stars. I’m thrown over the man’s shoulder and I bash my head against his shoulder blade.

Instantly darkness shrouds my vision and I fall limp.

R e n a

I had almost finished sparring with the boy, but Kian in his infinite wisdom had to go and distract me.

As he shouts my name, I whip around to see the bald man crack him over the head with the handle of his dagger and sling him over his shoulder like a child’s toy.

I’m pulled away from this when suddenly feel a sharp pain in my side and turn my head to see that the boy has stabbed me while I was distracted.

As an automatic reflex, my runemark glows and I cast a rune, sending the boy sprawling backwards and sapping me quickly of energy. I fall back against one of the shelves, my hand pressed tightly against my wound as blood seeps through the fabric.

Once he’s regained his composure he doesn’t come back to finish me off as I originally thought. He doesn’t do any more damage to me, but instead rushes after the larger man who calls him back while climbing his way out of the library.

I look at the bookshelves guiltily; I know we need the third Book of Old, but saving Kian from these desert folk is much more important.

Getting to my feet, I rush after them and quickly make my way up my shawl, untying it quickly before jumping out of the window and rolling down the mountain of sand after the bandits.

I try to run after them, but between the blood loss and the sand slowing my speed my chances of reaching them in time go from slim to none. And before I’m anywhere near them, they’ve mounted their camels and sped away, spraying sand as they go.

I quickly realise there is no chance of me catching them on foot but I can’t will myself to stop running, until my knees give out and they are simple specs on the horizon.

I’ll have to track them and catch up with them on the horses, but for now I kneel there panting, dread building in the pit of my stomach as blood dribbles over my fingers and stains the sand red. My eyes stare at the horizon as the bandits make off into the depths of the desert.

“I will find you,” I promise as they disappear into the shimmering heat, Kian slipping further from my grasp.

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