The Sands of Sorrow
The nation died with the thunder and left ruins to languish for centuries, its cities become playthings of time to be buried by sand and excavated by wind over and over as the tide washes the shore. Mighty Cheytagaroth was dead and gone, her soldiers very skeletons ground to dust and mingled with the wild breezes. But her cities, her magnificent cities, still rose for the heavens. The tombs of a nation were now left standing in fields that had long ago devolved into deserts and shifting dunes. When the wind blew just right the palace of the old Sorcerates was revealed for a time, or perhaps the Aquiary of Venoms or the famous statue of Dekandis the Wicked. Only for a time was anything ever above the changing sea of sand. All things were eventually re‑shrouded in grit and hidden again from the eyes of the sun.
It was across this wasteland, where every footstep trod upon the buried history of a long dead people, that Dhalryk Morvellum and Jekka DuRell traveled. Burdened and horseless they walked onward, mouths shut to avoid the heat that could evaporate water straight from their tongues. Dhalryk looked ahead, both his eyes straining against the heat distortion and the sunlight. He looked at Jekka and pointed ahead. She nodded and they continued on. Ahead lay the top of a tower, completely buried in the sands, save for the last few floors. Slowly, with tired legs dragging in the hot sand, they made their way to it. The dune that engulfed the tower was angled and, although the tower was straight, the strange tilt of the ground made it appear to lean awkwardly to the left. They reached its base and moved into the first shade they’d felt since sunrise.
They sat panting for a while, enjoying the feeling of coolness on their skin for a while. Jekka spoke. “Can you feel it?”
Dhalryk nodded and uncorked a bottle of water. He took a small drink, rolled it around in his mouth, swallowed and replied. “Yes, I can.” He offered Jekka the bottle and she repeated his actions for herself.
“Do you think they feel it too?”
Dhalryk nodded. “I’m sure, probably better than we do.” Jekka squinted up at the tower and un‑slung her pack to remove a rope and grapple.
“Then we’ve little time to spare.”
Dhalryk nodded, put the water away and watched her fasten a line to the roof balcony. Together they hauled their tired bodies up the rope and into the long abandoned Citadel of Keeping.
The once smooth onyx floors of the tower landing were scratched rough by the countless battles with the invading sands. Dhalryk cautiously approached the weathered balcony door while Jekka coiled the rope and returned it to her satchel. He looked at the ground and saw a slight arc in drifting sands in front of the door. Instantly he drew a yard of steel from its scabbard and hissed to Jekka quietly.
“We are too late.”
Jekka’s countenance clouded with concern and she took her bow from her shoulder and notched an arrow. Dhalryk glanced to see that she was ready and took hold of the door. He braced his legs and opened it quickly, his hand immediately returning to his weapon.
The scene that met Dhalryk’s eyes was not what he had anticipated. They had know that Batoda and his chosen seven were seeking the same goal, and now it seemed that they had beaten them too it. Dhalryk was prepared to face them and even their Nillian master, even to the death, when he opened the door. It seemed that he would not have to.
Scattered around the room the bodies of the chosen lie in horrible red stillness, life staining their tan acolyte tunics. The room was bright and the light streaming in from the ceiling damage illuminated every mote of dust and left splotches of white on the floor in the shape of the above cracks. The room was dominated by a dias that rose to the center of the room and was pedestal for a great ashen crystal that vaguely resembled the shape of a man. It was held upright by a large copper ring around its middle and three tarnished green legs of the same material.
It was before this crystal that Batoda stood, still holding the pair of serpentine daggers he had murdered his own Chosen Acolytes with. Dhalryk heard Jekka’s bowstring creak behind him and he raised his own weapon and stepped into the room. The Nillian heard Dhal’s steps and turned around to reveal his white robes dirtied by his crimes. He raised both daggers and laid them across his chest, crossing them in an X, and spoke.
“You must know that your only hope was to arrive here first.” He glances at the bodies of his dead minions from under his bushy eyebrows. “You must also know that you have not, evidently, accomplished this.”
Dhalryk adjusted his sword and felt sweat on the leather grip. “I can’t let you Batoda. If allow this then it’s my fault, and I’ll not live with that.” Batoda continued to look at his dead companions.
“Do you know that I poisoned them? It isn’t what killed them though. I killed them with these.” He raised the two bloody serrated daggers above him. “Do you know why I killed them would‑be heroes, when every single one of them would have given their life to protect me?”
“Because you’re mad!” Snapped Jekka and released an arrow. Batoda lurched to his left and the shaft found its mark in his shoulder. He dropped to a knee and hurled one of the daggers at her as he did. Jekka was already moving but the ill thrown blade was lucky and managed to scrape her just above her boot.
“No, fool girl! Because I was harvesting the poisons!” cried Batoda.
Dhalryk watched in horror as she crashed to the floor with the slap of skin on stone and lay as dead as the other corpses littering the room.
Dhalryk’s stupor was shattered by the lunging blade of Batoda. There was hardly a moment after Jekka fell before his enemy was back off the floor and upon him. Dhalryk parried the fast stabbings of the Nillian knowing full well that even the tiniest nick would kill him in an instant. Batoda’s body was turned sideways and he held the blade in his right hand, his left trickled blood from the arrow in his shoulder. The attacks were a series of forward thrusts that changed target each time, trying for Dhal’s shoulder, belly, leg, and head. Suddenly he slashed horizontally at neck level. The blade severed the cord of Dhal’s white desert cloak, but didn’t graze his skin.
Batoda eased up his attack for a moment to see if his strike had found its mark, and Dhalryk seized his opportunity. With the same speed he used to parry the lighter dagger, he slashed viciously and connected with Batoda’s right calf muscle. Batoda screamed and dropped to the floor, bringing the dagger down in a stabbing motion as he did. Dhalryk sprang under the blade and to his right. The weapon pierced the fallen cloak where he’d been standing.
Batoda was hobbled. He tried to stand but slipped back to the ground heavily, a look of hatred as he watched Dhal circle him from a safe distance. His breathing was ragged as he spoke.
“You’ll join her! Mark me, you will!” Dhalryk shook his head.
“You’re going to suffer Batoda, for her, and for everyone you intended to kill. I won’t let it happen!” Batoda’s eyes were wells of darkness beneath his bushy eyebrows. With tremendous effort he pulled his injured leg in front of him and assumed a lotus position, cross legged on the floor, fingertips from each hand spread and touching. Dhal moved in to strike the sitting man when suddenly the fallen dagger rose from the floor near Batoda and began to float above him, as if wielded by an invisible assailant.
Dhalryk was instantly back to where he was before, blocking and parrying the fatal red blade, only now, he lacked the ability to read the body language of his attacker. The task was much more difficult and over and over the blade came within centimeters of his skin. A loud hum was beginning to permeate the room. Dhal couldn’t spare a full glance, but out of the corners of his eyes he could see violet energies starting to flow, fog‑like, out of the great ashen stone and towards Batoda.
Dhalryk knew what he had to do. He parried the next attack as hard as he could and turned his back on the floating death. He took the steps of the dais at a run and as he passed the vibrating monolith he smashed one of three copper legs holding it up with all his strength. He was almost certain that the dagger would land in his back before he had a chance to wheel around and parry; but he needed to destroy that stone, even at the cost of his life.
The old leg, tarnished green, and worn from the ages of sand, broke easily under the impact. Dhal fell down the steps of the dais and rolled onto his back ready to defend himself. As the ancient stone fell it intersected with the blade that was a hairs breadth behind him and brought it crashing to the ground with it. As the gray monolith crushed into the grooved onyx steps purple energy surged out of its cracked shape uncontrollably. Fierce winds spun around the room, surging to be free of the tower’s confines. Sand stung his eyes and the gale carried small stones and flashes of energy within it. Dhalryk stood to his feet and raised his sword.
Batoda was still sitting, being buffeted by the tempest of sand, wind, and color. His murderous hands left red streaks as he clutched his bald head and wailed at Dhalryk.
“Do you even know what it is you’ve done!? Do you even know?” His eyes, often hidden, were wide with terror as Dhal approached his with a raised sword. “You’ve no idea!”
“I know you’ve killed Jekka mage. That’s all I need to know.” The blade descended and Batoda was no more.
The energy maelstrom continued to spin like a drunken tornado around the room. Through the howl of sound Dhalryk heard several loud snaps and the room brightened suddenly. A great chunk of ceiling fell crashing to the ground to his left and burst into large fragments. One of these crashed into his hip and sent him sprawling onto his back. All around the room stone descended with ground shaking impacts until the top of the Citadel of Keeping was no more. Shielding his eyes from the wind Dhalryk could see what appeared to be rivulets and waves of a transparent purple liquid, or perhaps a super dense fog, coursing and flowing up and out of the now almost vanished ceiling into the vibrant blue desert sky. It began to slow before his eyes, the steady course narrowing down to what appeared to be sticky strands, like trails of honey, and then these too were gone. The fragments of the stone seemed to cool, stop glowing, and return to their former dead ashen color.
The stinging wind left with the departure of the released magic, but not the pain in his side. Dhalryk stood shakily and surveyed the rubble under the brightness of the desert sun. Batoda’s body had been completely crushed by the falling masonry, and many of his followers were also partially concealed, their dying crimson turning a dark brown as it was absorbed by the drifting sands. On the far side of the room the floor had given out and a dark pit gave passage to the level below.
Dhalryk turned back to the doorway he had entered through and gasped in surprise. There, amidst the broken stones, sat Jekka DuRell. She turned and looked at him with a distant look in her eyes.
“I am back.” She stated flatly.
Dhal scrambled over the rubble to her side. “My God! Jekka! The poisons didn’t kill you! I saw you fall and thought you were dead!”
The raven hair girl stared at him comprehending nothing. Dhalryk suddenly felt uneasy. Her eyes were different, they had changed somehow, and now they seemed duller as if they were veiled in clouds, a strange milky pallor. “Jekka? Are you all right?”
Jekka’s face twitched and she squinted in the sunlight, trying to look around the room. She caught sight of the smashed stone and stood up to get a better look at it. Dhalryk watched her with concern. “These are ruins.” She stated while looking around the room. “Old ruins.”
“Yes. Don’t you remember? I don’t think you’re well Jekka.” Dhal pulled his waterskin out and opened it. “Here have a drink and rest.”
Jekka stopped, looked at the waterskin, and then looked back to Dhalryk.
“My name is not Jekka.” Dhalryk blinked.
“What do you mean? Of course you’re Jekka. Jekka DuRell. Don’t you remember?” Dhalryk reached out to touch her shoulder and she flinched back from him. Raising a slender hand she pointed to the broken stone.
“Within that stone slept my essence, my soul, and my memories. But now, somehow, I’m here.” The girl looked down at her body in confusion and then back at Dhalryk.
“My name is Ithagar.”
Dhalryk stepped back and away from her, his eyes landing on his discarded sword by the dais steps. Ithagar raised her hands and shook her head. “Please! Do not take up your blade! I mean no harm, and I’m as confused as you.”
“Where do you come from?” Snapped Dhalryk, watching her closely he moved over toward his blade.
“From Garachok, I was apprentice to Elethir Devin.” The thing wearing Jekka’s body sat down on a stone and looked at him mournfully. Dhalryk shook his head.
“I’ve never heard of Garachok, or your master either.” He bent down and retrieved his sword.
“Where am I?” She asked.
“You are in the Cheytagaroth dunes, in one of the thousand ruins that they sometimes see fit to reveal.” His figure relaxed some, but he did not sit or lower the weapon.
“Ruins? I come from the nation of Cheytagaroth, and Garachok the Azure is one of our great cities.” Dharlyk tensed at her words.
“You come from the time of the evil empire? The nation of sorcerer kings?” She nodded.
“Yes, our rulers, the Sorcerates, are all wizards.” She stands and looks at the ancient room around her. “What has happened?”
“Centuries ago your kings almost destroyed everything, their empire vanished and they left the world in madness. Beasts and creatures walk the earth as a result, but the Cheytagar do not have to deal with the trouble they caused, because there are none left.” Ithagar shifted uneasily under his intense glare and evident hatred of the ancient and long gone Cheytagar.
“I had nothing to do with all that. I was simply a servant, an apprentice…” Her milky eyes began to tear up. “I don’t understand what’s happened…”
Dhalryk stood in thought, weighing his options. After a time, he sighed and sheathed his sword. “Perhaps you don’t, but either way, I’m not one to figure it out. We should bring you to men wiser than me. I intended to travel to Rogmara, but perhaps I’ll take you a bit further to Iridian Doorstep, the Caldignartian city of scholars.”
Jekka turned Ithagar looked at him in surprise. “Do you think they will be able to explain what has occurred?”
Dhalryk walked over to the smashed stone and retrieved a fist sized fragment. “I don’t know, but with a bit of this stone, and you there to explain, perhaps…”
She stood and smiled at him. Dhalryk’s mind raced at the sight of her smile. It was not Jekka, but he wanted to smile back nevertheless he clamped down on his emotions and scowled at her instead.
“We should be going. There is nothing left here for us but the dead.”
To the eye, the two departed in very much the same way as they entered, but the eye was deceived, and as they headed off across the blistering sands, Dhalryk knew, that nothing was the same.