In the desert outside the city Sahn wrapped his sun beaten dry fingers around a large stone, then picked it up to bash at a smaller rock he held against a much larger stone imbedded in the hot desert soil.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Darvin asked him while standing near a small bush next to the tiny stream that trickled through the narrow ravine.
“Who has more experience with stone or any experience with stone for that matter,” Sahn replied with a very haggard voice, as he struck the stone again flaking off a piece of it then turning it to strike in another area. “If I were painting a portrait or attending a cactus garden, then I’d ask your advice.” Sahn struck the rock again so close to the fingers holding the stone that if his aim was off even the slightest, he’d smash his own sun-blistered fingers.
“Well if I had known you were going to be this ungrateful I would have left you back in the spirit realm.” Darvin said, as he sat down on a mound of desert soil with clean clothes and otherwise no sign of being in the desert for several days. Sahn stopped striking the rock for a moment, as he turned to face Darvin. The chillsuit he wore was torn and covered with sweat stains and barely hung from his thin body. He looked over at Darvin with one eyelid half closed and his long white hair clumped in front of his blistered skin. He leaned back and nearly fell over, as he tried to catch his breath.
“I so wish you had left me there,” he spoke with his words seeping out across his dry cracked lips. “I could have been with my wife Ammaline and my daughter now, instead of dying out here in this heat.”
“Don’t blame me for the heat of this desert. You could have stayed in the city where it’s much cooler.”
Sahn stood there struggling with each labored breath. Then he just raised his hand up and waved off Darvin’s comment. He almost fell over, as he turned to again strike at the stone flaking off more pieces of it, then turned it over to flake off some more. He continued smashing at the stone, as the twin suns moved across the desert sky heating up an already parched landscape. Sahn flipped the stone over and it appeared to be taking on the shape of a spear head with sharp edges and smoother curved area at the end.
“Isn’t it rather small,” Darvin asked, as he now stood over Sahn’s shoulder watching him work. Sahn stopped what he was doing and leaned the hand he held the large rock in on the ground nearby.
“I’m not going to be hunting rooghons,” he spat out with increasing labored breaths. “I’ll be hunting smaller prey. Anything I can catch to eat.” He sat back on the ground after finishing the spearhead and rested with the suns heat near directly overhead. After only a short time he reached down with the sharpened spearhead and cut off a strip of cloth off his ragged chillsuit. After he cut of a length he lay down on his stomach and dipped the strand of material in the tiny stream, then drank his fill of water and splashed some of its coolness onto his face. He pulled himself up from the stream of water and grabbed a long nearly straight wooden branch. He lifted one end to his face and using the sharp edge of the spearhead; he cut a small slit in the wood then pealed it apart enough to slide in the spearhead he just sharpened. He then tied the strands of material around the end of the spear pulling it as tight as his weary muscles could manage and wrapped it around several times. He tied off the ends of the material then tugged at the spearhead to see that it was a tight fit. He lay there again to regain what little strength he had left then pushed himself up and crawled up the narrow ravine up to the near-barren wasteland above.
He looked around as far as he could see with his hand shielding the suns’ rays from his eyes. He saw no sign of movement amongst the hardy bushes and patches of brown grass that dotted the otherwise dry desert soil. He pushed forward with a staggered gait hunched over and using his spear like a staff and Darvin walking casually behind him. He followed the ravine as it meandered further into the hot desert hoping to catch an animal coming out of the heat in search of water.
With the heat of the suns beating down on his arched back and his long white hair sticking to the back of his sweaty neck, Sahn pushed on further into the hot desert searching desperately for something to kill for food. The suns continued to shine on him stealing his energy a little at a time. After searching ahead and with the suns directly overhead, he veered back into the ravine to drink some more when he saw a large long-eared rabbit drinking its fill of water. He moved quietly back up the ravine to the smoother desert surface up top so he could move much more silent as he stalked the unsuspecting hare.
The rabbit continued to drink from the water, but kept its eyes, long ears and nose watchful for predators. Sahn stalked just at the edge of the ravine watching his prey below. He knew the rabbit would run at the slightest noise and placed each step as carefully as he could upon the dry desert soil. He crouched at the edge of the ravine behind a thick bush with dry brown needles. He watched as the animal continued to drink and waited for his moment to move in. The footing in the ravine was filled with rubble and loose soil. He knew the moment he stepped in, it would be much harder to walk silent, but the prey was too far out of reach to try and throw his spear now with any degree of accuracy or enough force to pierce the flesh of the rabbit.
With the suns hot on his back, Sahn stepped steadily into the ravine with a quick look at where he placed each step. His spear held out ready to throw, he looked back at his prey after each careful step down the ravine. One step meticulously placed with the sole of his sandals pressed against the root of a bush. He looked again at the rabbit which had lifted its head. Sahn froze where he was. He was much closer, but was he close enough? If he threw the spear now could he hit the rabbit? He waited trying not to breathe too loud, watching his prey close, hoping it didn’t dart from the stream. After a short time, the rabbit lowered its head back down and drank some more of the cool stream water. Sahn stepped forward and placed another foot in the loose sand on the other side of the small bush and began to step out from behind it, but a few small stones were disturbed when he placed his foot.
Sahn again froze watching the small stones roll down into the ravine. He held his spear ready and turned to watch the rabbit below. The hare twitched one of its long ears and lifted its head. Sahn aimed the spear and threw, just as the rabbit took off running up the opposite embankment. The spear sailed in the dry desert air toward its target and lodged in the sand just to one side of the rabbit as it escaped up the ravine. Out of strength, Sahn dropped to his knees as he saw what could have been the first bit of food he had in days scamper up the embankment and off to safety.
“So you’re just going to stay here?” Darvin asked from behind Sahn who remained on his knees in the ravine.
“I’m very comfortable here,” Sahn replied without lifting his head.
“There’s cool water down there. Go down and get a drink, you’ll feel much better.”
“That’s a rather stupid question. Get your butt up and get down there and drink some water. There’ll be other opportunities to catch food.”
“Oh just leave me be. If I stay here the suns heat will roast me and then I’ll soon be back with Ammaline.”
“Your wife is dead! She has been now for about a thousand years. Now get up!” Darvin came down closer to Sahn and grabbed him by the shoulders. He lifted him up and shoved him forward. “You’re alive now. Be thankful for it. The living still have need of you as you will soon learn.”
Sahn staggered down the hill and dropped near the stream. He drank his fill of water and again splashed its coolness on his face. He lay there for a short time with the suns drifting overhead across a bright cloudless sky. After regaining some strength from the fill of water he lifted himself up and climbed up the ravine yet again in search for food.
Hours later after seeing no more potential prey except lizards and ants that crawled out of their tiny holes in the ground, Sahn dragged himself further on with the hot suns finally starting to set. He approached a tall hill and the stream he had been following all day turned to go to the west along the line of hills he approached. With the heat no longer stealing away his strength, Sahn climbed the small hill to see what he might find on the other side. Once on top of the small hill Sahn stood motionless. He leaned forward and blinked a few times to be certain what he was seeing was real.
Spread out before him was an ocean of thick brown grass and trees. Ahead in the distance were tall trees in isolated groups with branches that spread out at the top like a like a mushroom. He could also see farmland, rows of crops of a variety of green plants. There were also three small windmills with their slow spinning blades blowing in the gentle breeze each with a large wooden tank nearby. A few fires were just being lit along the edges of the farms, as the suns continued to drop out of sight and the much welcomed cooler darkness rolled in. Sahn trudged forward walking as if in a trance toward the nearest tall tree. Still mindful of avoiding contact with other people he stepped through the thick wavy brown field of grass until he was close enough to reach out and touch the cool rough bark of a tree.
Further ahead Sahn saw something he didn’t quite recognize. Not far from the base of a group of three trees together at the edge near one of the small windmills was an opening in the ground. Sahn watched the campfires to see if there was any movement then creeped steadily forward toward the opening at the edge of one of the farm fields. He saw a mounted figure on a klaatu walking along a well-worn path that bordered the farms. Sahn stayed hidden in the grass and made sure the figure was well passed him and out of range to hear any light sounds, then stepped closer to the opening in the ground. He could hear a strange sound coming from deep within the ground and spilling out the small opening. Sahn looked down the opening with a rope ladder fastened to long stakes in the ground he saw the reflection of water below the surface.
With scarcely a thought of who might be below Sahn dropped quickly into the hole and climbed down to what was revealed to be a large underground lake. He stopped about halfway down and waited for his eyes to adjust to the shadowed area with only a tiny trickle of moonlight seeping in from the manhole above his head and other manholes further away and around a bend in the lake. While still hanging from the rope ladder he took a good look at the underground oasis he stumbled upon. With only a few stalagmites dripping down from above and the long roots of the tall trees, there was a long clay pipe that dipped into the water just below the nearby windmill. Sahn looked around and after seeing no signs of anyone else below, he eased his way down the rope ladder.
He touched his sandals down on a bank at the edge of the lake with water so clear he could see a variety of fish both large and small swimming in its cool water. A raft was pulled up on shore with a paddle and spear tied down to it. Sahn eased his way passed the raft and pulled off his sandals. He stepped quietly into the lake until he was out enough to swim deeper into the chilly water. Sahn held his spear in his hand, as he watched some fish swim nearby. Waiting until a big fish swam almost right up to him, Sahn jabbed it with his spear then quickly pulled it back where he could grab it before it flipped off the end and swam away. He came up out of the water with the slippery fish still on his spear with his free hand holding it from sliding off.
Sahn cut off the head of the fish and scraped off its scales then dug out some of the flesh inside and tossed it into his mouth enjoying the moistness of the meat on his tongue before chewing it up and swallowing its nourishment down his dry throat. He ate as much of the fish as his vacant shriveled stomach would allow, then tossed the rest into the lake. He cleaned up the area where he ate near the raft, then grabbed his sandals and eased back into the water. With his spear in one hand and his sandals in the other, Sahn swam across the lake to the opposite bank and put his sandals back on. He walked along the other bank until finding the entrance to a small cave. He ducked his head then disappeared into the darkness of the cave that seemed to swallow him whole. He moved around in the dark cave moving slow and feeling around with his hands in the dark until he found the back wall of the cave, then set down his spear and curled up to rest. As the suns fell the temperature fell with them and Sahn shivered himself through the night laying on the cold cave floor.
That evening as the suns heat finally started to set and the purple sky moved in to reclaim its hold over the city, the dwellers within came out of hiding. In the grand center of the city among the tall hardy shade trees with their brown needles and variety of desert shrubs and flora, workers unloaded wagons of lumber and began construction on four structures around the step pyramid. The nearby market flowed with renewed activity and the streets throughout the valley again filled with travel. Otis and Millaney walked among the many Shrkai who filled the city with several soldiers following at a discreet distance. Otis strode across a parade ground filled with Shrkai soldiers honing their weaponry skill. He walked directly to a tall mound he had been to many times before on his visits to the region with his loyal rooghon in tow loaded with a wooden barrel and a large tied up satchel. Otis halted his beast and untied the barrel lowering onto his broad shoulders then carried it up the small mound in the center of four drill squares.
Having been previously instructed, Millaney went around to the other side of the rooghon and untied the satchel.
“Tell me again how this is helping my father?” she asked as she pulled a large bag of aromatic coffee beans out of the satchel.
“We are part of the ‘distraction’ team,” Otis replied, as he punched a hole in the barrel and started to drip water on all four sides of the mound working his way to the top. Millaney shrugged her shoulders and lifted the burlap bag up high so that the nearby soldiers could clearly see the brown bean marked on its side. Most of the soldiers knew what was to come and dropped their weapons and started to gather around the mound, as Millaney lifted a second burlap bag out of the rooghon’s satchel, this one was not marked, but Otis had finished turning the sides of the mound to mud and called out to the soldiers on the practice fields.
“Sweet licorice from the western coast and a special blend of coffee I know you all love, grown only in the hills near Schilling Harbor, these are the prizes for whichever man is capable of knocking me off this hill.”
“I’ll take you down!” a young Shrkai soldier with the symbol of the dragon clan worn on his bracer shouted out.
“Now this isn’t a free contest. My price is not a steep one, but most of you know what I like to get. Of course as usual I don’t expect you to carry any items with you on field practice, but each of you must swear to provide such in order to enter.” Otis remarked to the crowd in general, but directed it mostly at the young dragon clan soldier who stood in a group with other soldiers with the same symbol. A soldier without the dragon symbol on his bracer stepped over to explain it to them. One by one the soldiers agreed to pay for the chance to win the bags of coffee and licorice and proceeded to try and climb up on the muddy mound from all four sides while Otis waited up top.
While Otis stood on top of the muddied mound, Sarnay and Frolin were allowed access to the lab where the high priest was killed. At first they just looked quietly at the scene not knowing what they would find.
“Patrah said there was a trail of blood leading from the bench here,” Sarnay mentioned, as she looked at the floor near the area where the body was found. “They of course must have cleaned up.” Frolin stepped over beside her and bent down to look at the floor. He changed the lenses in his bronze goggles to take a closer look at the floor. At first he saw nothing more, but when he changed lenses again he could see a reddish outline on the stone floor.
“There is something here.” He moved slowly forward crouching as he walked with his face so near the stone floor he had to place a hand on the floor to keep from falling over. He moved his way to the bench the high priest sat on following the trail of the blood stains even though the trail halted where a rug used to be. The pillows had been removed, but he definitely saw the barely visible trail of blood stains leading to the bench and more stains on the bench. “Yes Patrah’s correct there was a blood trail, but there’s something else altogether.” He peered closer to the area near the bench and brought his right index finger down to a tiny crumb on the floor behind the bench. His fingertip looked gigantic compared to the tiny crumb he lifted off the floor and brought closer to his goggles to examine it.
“Something else?” Sarnay questioned, as she approached from behind him.
“I think it’s clay,” Frolin remarked, then looked to the floor behind the bench again and found more crumbs that he followed to the far wall and looked up at the wall. “Yes I’m sure of it and there’s more here on this wall.”
“What are you sure?”
“I’m positive. Here look.” He ran his fingertip on the stone wall and wiped up some more crumbs and tried to show them to her, but all she really saw was his dirty fingertip.
“I’ll take your word for it. What does that mean exactly?”
“Well clay is rare in the city. There’s absolutely no good reason for it to be in here.”
“Can you follow this trail of clay?”
“Great idea! We’d of course have to get to the other side of this wall.” Excited from his find, Frolin went to run out of the room only to forget to change the lenses in his goggles and bumped into the bench. Sarnay shook her head and laughed, as he adjusted his googles then took his hand, as she led him out of the room.
Once outside the chambers of the lab, they searched frantically for a way to get around to the back side of the chambers, but there was no pathway leading behind the room, only the one path that led them back toward the stairs headed the up the way they came in.
“Well I suppose it stands to reason that whatever passed through that wall could reach a pocket within the stone that we have no path to.”
“Well then how do we get to it?”
“We don’t. I suppose, but maybe there’s a way to draw it out to us.”
“How do we do that? We don’t even know what it is.”
“Let’s get back to my home and we’ll think of something.”
Frolin and Sarnay walked quietly up the stairs that led them back out into the night air. Back on the mound of mud, Otis was tossing Shrkai soldiers back down left and right. Most of them would barely get up, before getting sent back down the slippery slope. Millaney just found a quiet place out of the way to sit and watch the action. She would make sure to casually look off behind her where a group of armed Shrkai soldiers had been lurking, watching their every move. She also looked up toward the now completely dark purple sky with almost no clouds blocking the multitude of stars overhead. She wondered if she would ever be with her father again, if they truly would somehow be able to free him. As she looked up into the night sky, Otis grappled with two Shrkai with the dragon bracers. He tossed one down so hard he knocked down three others who were trying to climb up the muddy mound. He grabbed the wrist of the other and shoved him toward another soldier who was just setting his feet on the dry soil on top of mound.
Finally three Shrkai grabbed Otis at the same time. One pulled his leg out from under him, so that now Otis was flat on his back while the other two grabbed his arms and together started to pull him toward the edge of the mound. Otis lifted his free leg and pushed at the face of the one soldier on his leg freeing himself of him. He then pulled himself back toward the center of the mound with two Shrkai still holding his arms. The soldier who had grabbed his leg wasn’t pushed far and he came back this time to grab both his legs and the three of them were able to pull him to the edge of the mound. Otis clung to the hill digging in with the heels of his boots, but his efforts were in vain, as the weight of the man on his legs pulled him over the edge and the four of them slid down off the mound.
Millaney’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a resounding cheer that lifted up from the whole of Shrkai soldiers. They all gathered around to pat each of the three muddy victors and Otis on the back.
“Well I guess I’ll have to find a way to divvy the prize up three ways,” Otis called out to the crowd. “Well on to the great hall where I have some chilled frostcider waiting for us.” The soldiers shouted out once again and the entire procession followed Otis away from the practice fields after he picked up the sacks. Millaney paused for a moment again looking up at the sky. Lunarri the smooth green full moon was rising over the horizon. She pressed her lips together looking toward the magnificent moon then turned to follow the massive group of soldiers and one rooghon.
Early the next morning as the suns were rising Gaitlynne was out flying on the large dark grey male dragon, Haze. Below the dragon was a halved barrel that dangled from the end of a long rope that with a connection that split off into three ropes that held the barrel by some metal fittings. With the morning suns shining off Haze’s leathery wings, she swooped down over a wide river that flowed through the center of the dense rainforest on the northeast side of the mountain range. An ampotagorous, an amphibious reptile extinct in every other part of the known continent, grazed on the lush vegetation that grew wild in the dense jungle along the banks of the lazy river. With no predators large enough to threaten it, the huge invertebrate with feet that more resembled fins, thrived in the lush remote jungle. It lifted its huge wedge-shaped had, as Gaitlynne and her dragon dropped down toward the river and with a flip of its massive tail it splashed back into the depths of the gentle-flowing river. Gaitlynne guided her dragon with its wings spread wide down to scoop up water in the barrel then with several beats of his powerful wings; Haze lifted the heavy barrel of water out of the river and flew back up toward the mountains.
Once back at dragon tower built on a high peak in the mountains, Haze lowered the barrel carefully down to a spot near the side of the tower while Gaitlynne then released the rope. Haze landed on the top of the first floor of the round tower behind him so Gaitlynne could climb down off his saddle-less back. She climbed down some notched out sections of the first story wall and came over to get a drink from the barrel then filled a sprinkle can. She was sure to secure a lid over the barrel to keep dragons from drinking out of it, then carried the sprinkle can over to some plants she had growing along the base of the building. Gaitlynne started to sprinkle and weed the vegetable plants growing by the tower wall, when she heard Haze growl and the sound of soft footfalls behind her.
“So you’re a gardener now?” Casanna snickered after appearing. Haze opened his mouth wide and blew a stream of fire that engulfed the goddess. “Now now dragon. You should know you can’t harm me with fire.” Casanna stepped forward after the stream of fire ended without even a smoke stain on her short flowing dress, with a wave of her hand she and Gaitlynne were whisked away to the spirit realm. Gaitlynne continued to tend to her plants not realizing the change. They vanished from the mortal realm, but were still in the same location only in an alternate dimension.
“I thought I’d seen the last of you when I bit your head off,” Gaitlynne remarked while she harvested some long green vegetables.
“So had I, but it seems the fates have reason to keep us together.” Casanna sauntered over to take a closer look at what Gaitlynne was harvesting.
“I guess I’ll have to talk with the fates, as soon as I get the chance,” Gaitlynne remarked, then looked up to notice her dragon was searching for her beyond a near-transparent barrier. Gaitlynne finally stood up and turned to look at Casanna who was now sitting in a comfortable chair. “What is it you want with me exactly?” she asked trying unsuccessfully to keep her frustration hidden.
“Now don’t be angry. Perhaps I just came to visit?”
“Angry?,” Gaitlynne began as she tried to smile. “Why would I be angry? You only killed my husband and had me turned in to a dragon.”
“Wellll… that was the old me. Now that I’ve ascended I want to make things right.” Casanna said with as a sincere a smile as she had ever used before in her life. She actually did want to befriend Gaitlynne. Although they conflicted in the most dramatic of ways over the more than fifteen years since they first met. Gaitlynne had found her and some other children when Casanna was a spirited teenager after their sleigh had gone off a short cliff escaping the trillque invasion. She warned Casanna not to try to contact the gods, especially using a potion she was not used to, but the willful Casanna ignored her advice and it was at that moment, although she wasn’t aware at the time, that she was first chosen to serve the god of chaos. A short time later Gaitlynne had also saved her from certain death by killing a trillque and pulling her to safety. Casanna never truly revealed it to anyone and even denied it to herself, but she honestly admired Gaitlynne. She had not chosen to be the apprentice and later as she got older, the mistress of the dark priest, but she embraced it and even tried to get Gaitlynne to join them.
She never truly understood why Gaitlynne preferred to aid the people Casanna saw as inferior, but still she had always wanted to be with her, like a pestering young sibling would follow the elder, Casanna truly just wanted Gaitlynne to accept her. Now after she died at a young age after the war she started against the Annuvian territory using the dragons and the Shrkai dragon clan as her willing minions, Casanna sought more and more power and control. She only recently ascended as a new goddess and now again sought to befriend the only person she ever truly admired.
Gaitlynne turned to look at the one person she despised. She had agreed to ‘stay out of it’. She didn’t want to use her dragons against the Shrkai. She didn’t want another war as much as anyone else if not more. She had suffered the loss of her husband and her humanity and now after her humanity was restored again and she was quite content to live up in dragon tower away from all the conflicts of life, she was confronted by the charms of her nemesis. She could feel her rage swelling inside, but found the strength to suppress it and smile.
“There is nothing you can do. I am quite happy here and just wish to remain neutral.”
“But there is so much we can do together. I can take you anywhere.”
“So can my dragons.”
“With your strength you can lead a sisterhood here among the mortals while I can provide you and your dragons with whatever you need.” Casanna stood from her comfortable throne and snapped her fingers. The two of them were instantly brought out over the planet below high above the clouds. “You can rule over the land as my chosen disciple.”
“I do not wish to rule.” Gaitlynne replied trying desperately to conceal the anger that was percolating within. “Please return me to my home.”
Casanna paused. She could see that she was getting nowhere. She wanted more than anything to have Gaitlynne be her friend once more and join her in her rule, she knew she had time. She was unsure herself of her next move. She had gained such great power when she ascended, but she didn’t know exactly how she wanted to use it. Ralomar of the dragon clan was really the only mortal who knew of her ascension and was willing to be her servant in the mortal realm, but she knew she wanted more. She smiled and returned them both to the peak outside of dragon tower.
“Think about my offer. I’ll not be hard to find should you reconsider.” Casanna smiled and stepped through a glowing portal.
Gaitlynne sat on the rocky ground and Haze the dragon came by to sniff at her. She caressed her dragon’s snout and looked out at the rising suns through a thin layer of clouds that surrounded the high tower.