Only One Death: Part Nine of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the ninth chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
To read an introduction to this novella, and the backcover blurb, click here.
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'When will we stop?' Dhinal asked who he thought was the correct Twig.
Since leaving the river they had followed the road, moving quickly and with purpose.
'Soon. You will see. Look.' A child-sized hand was flung out, all the fingers pointing together.
Clearly he had chosen the right captor. Unless more than one of them spoke the language Strings had taught the group. He turned his head as bidden.
They passed through some tall pines into a meadow. To their left the land sloped up to a rounded false top, with sheer crags and cliffs beyond. But it was not this that the small man was pointing at. Immediately behind this ridge line rose the Amethyst Mountains, all three visible and taller by far than the other tops, snow-clad at their peaks and glowing with evening sunlight on their flanks. Cascades of colour rippled and writhed across them: pinks, purples, reds, whites, and others. It was extraordinary.
'Look at that,' Lopi said. 'Have you ever seen anything like it?'
Dhinal slowly shook his head. 'No Lopi. No, I have not.'
He had seen many things of majesty and wonder, seen artifice of the highest magnitude, journeyed through the deep and dangerous Canyonlands near his home, through the maze of near-tunnels before reaching Annezi Gap, passed the Telkian shoreline with its astounding cliff and rock formations, seen the Blackfang and the Black Pyramid; but he had never seen anything quite as awe-inspiring as these massive shimmering peaks.
The three mountains were simply stupendous.
He thought of the map Aishah-Zaya had given him, more than three years ago. The others in the group believed he possessed an ancient scroll; a dusty parchment or thinning vellum peppered with arcane symbols and pictographs. They thought this because that is what he had inferred. As he had picked up his disparate group of would-be-adventurers he had realised such a map was expected.
There was no physical map.
The map was in his head, memorised from the sand painting Aishah-Zaya had crafted over three days of trance and prayer. She had handed him chalk and a sandstone slate and made him draw and redraw the landmarks, over and over again until, sitting together before the sunset, they wiped the sand clean together. His journey had begun at dawn the following day.
He studied the lie of the land and his eyes widened. From the position of the Amethyst Mountains, the ridge in front of them, the proximity to the equinox and the low sun he knew they could not be far from the lost Red City. The ancient road was probably the same one Kees had told them had once headed there, reappearing from where it had been swallowed by the thick forest of the valleys.
'This road went to the Red City, didn't it?' he asked the nearest Twig, but received no reply.
The sun was disappearing behind the Amethyst Mountains, the light outlining their jagged profiles in bright purples and reds. Glinting and glittering, the sight was astonishing.
The road had passed from the forest, into scrub, then open country. The route wound leisurely around the hillside and twisted between outcrops of rock Dhinal was sure had once been carved into huge animals.
He tilted his head, a sound somewhere behind him made him listen intently, but it was gone. For a moment he had thought it the drumming of hooves.
'We will camp just ahead, beyond the sentinels,' the Twig said, gesturing with his spear to two tall outcrops of rock; spires which had certainly once been altered by tool, vision, and art.
Dhinal studied the rocks carefully. He was sure they were of a man and a woman, each carrying a child in their arms. As they walked beneath he saw they were covered in glyphs, pictographs, paintings and carvings from a more recent time. In some ways they were similar to the cliff face they had studied the day Bab had killed himself.
'Did your people paint those?' he asked, but his question received no reply. Instead their captor pointed, ahead and down.
'Your Red City.'
Dhinal was speechless.
'Shit. Look at that.' Strings voiced all their thoughts.
The Twig laughed, a surprisingly deep and throaty chuckle.
The Red City, place of legends, lost and mythologised beyond memory. The home of the First University and the Cathedral of the Skulls, the seat of the Seven Judges and The Three. The tales of its beauty appeared to have been true.
Beneath them it stretched, entirely walled and magnificent. Each and every structure was built from a combination of rich red stone interspersed with sparkling amethyst and other quartzes, all lit by the last rays of the day. Towers, their tops missing here and whole elsewhere, stretched along the length of the wall and bristled throughout the city. At the centre a spur from the mountainside stretched out above all the other buildings, crowned with a huge structure shaped like a cross, a high tower at its centre.
'Shit. Look at that,' Strings repeated.
'It does exist, I knew it would!' Yuli laughed, somehow forgetting her bonds.
Dhinal's eyes narrowed. Something was missing from the city.
'There are no plants growing there. No ivy or creepers to tear down the walls. No bushes and trees to pull and move the stone. It should have been reclaimed by nature by now, how long is it since anyone lived there? Maybe…'
They all heard it; the drumming of hooves behind them. Turning, Dhinal was met with the sight of Kees riding one of their two horses, leading the other at a trot, laden with baggage.
The Twigs parted, letting her through.
She dismounted, ignoring their shocked stares as she handed the reins to a pair of the small people, who quickly tied them off.
'Dhinal. Strings. Chimal, Yuli, Lopi. You are all looking well. Isn't it beautiful?' She gestured, a strange smile flitting across her face.
For a time, no one said a word.
Many thanks for reading.
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