The City in Shadows
Part Two – Hope Remains
The distance to the spires from where they had espied it closed but slowly, even despite the hurried pace they made towards it, and likewise did the distance to their pursuers narrow. The race as to would reach their goal first was one too hard to judge, for it would be a close run thing, and so they laboured on as the heat and sand scourged them. Kharjii, once so resigned to his fate, now urged his men on to greater efforts, for fear now drove him on. Death in the deserts was not a prospect he relished, as thirst and heat wracked and devoured the body, yet it remained preferable to the horrors that Barazi would inflict upon them should they be taken alive.
Almost imperceptibly, the spires inched taller above the horizon with each passing step, morphing into towers as their form solidified from out of the heat haze, while walls too they began to see, stretching out from the towers, of a kind that would enclose a city. No more did they consider it a mirage.
As they walked, they cast glances back across their shoulders, in the direction of those that pursued them. Closer now they had become, so that they could make out individual forms within the cloud of sand and dust kicked up by hooves, enough so that they could count three riders for each of them, pushing their weary horses as hard as they could, though the tiring pursuit had left them able to muster a pace only a little faster than the men on foot.
The closer that they came to their destination, the more the land about them began to change. No longer did they walk across a rock strew, arid plain, but one that gradually melded into a solid plate of black stone, in parts shining with a blinding brilliance as the sun reflected upon it, stabbing at their eyes like white hot knives. Nothing grew upon it, and indeed any earth that may have once rested upon it had been stripped clean by the winds over long ages.
The hours of the day had passed far beyond their zenith, and the sun sat low upon the horizon, a giant molten bronze orb, when at last Kharjii’s band reached the walls of the city, seemingly only mere minutes ahead of the riders who pursued them. Across the walls of the city and the black stone plains a pallid crimson glow was cast by the sun, giving a sinister tint to everything. The walls that rose before them had been constructed of the same black stone of the lands around it, though they had long since been pitted and abraded by he driven sands of the storms that plagued the deserts. Before the walls there once had stood tall stone statues, spread around its perimeter, each some ten times the height of mortal man, yet these too had been reduced by weathering until all that remained were mere shapeless forms, the personages they had once represented long lost to history.
They walked between the statues, staring up at their vast height, and upon them settled a feeling of being but mites beside them, insignificant in the grand scheme of the turn of history. Beyond the statues, they headed towards a gateway that led through the walls into the city itself. If once gates had hung in it, they had long vanished, leaving behind naught but a dark and brooding portal.
Not a sound came from any of them, not even a whisper, as they set foot in the cavernous entrance through the walls, the paved road wide enough to allow four chariots abreast along it with comfort. Not alone due to weariness were they silent, but in part also as an unspoken dread that lay heavy about. Each of them could feel it, closing in upon them, an aura of latent malignancy that had seeped into the very fabric of the place, into the walls and the stones, and not even the passage of millennia abandoned had been enough to erase it.
When at last they emerged out on the other side of the gateway, a wide courtyard, the black cobblestones of which were half buried beneath drifting sands, greeted them. Empty shells of buildings rose up around it, some of which were three stories in height, all grinning like the skulls of so many slain. Their eyes were drawn first and foremost to the well that stood in the centre of the courtyard. Eagerly they made their way towards, their thirst and the hope of water driving all other considerations from their minds.
Peregrine, first to arrive, peered down into the depths of the well, her keen sight attempting to pierce the murky gloom to discern what lay within.
“There is water down there,” she announced to the relief of all who had gathered about, “But it is a goodly way down, and no mechanisms still remain with which to recover it.”
“Such cruel illusions of hope taunt us,” Kharjii lamented. “To have what we need exist before our eyes, yet for it to remain beyond our relief is torture indeed.”
“There may be a way yet,” Blade croaked out. “If I can but wet my lips, I may yet be able to conjure up this water.”
Raising his canteen to his cracked lips, Blade drained what little remained in it. Then from a pouch at his belt, he withdrew a small amount of dust that he set upon the palm of his hand, holding it out over the well. He licked his lips before whistling a soft snatch of a tune across the dust. The wind of his breath scattered it from his hand, sending it cascading down into the well, accompanied by the tune that seemed to have taken on a life of its own, persisting even though he no longer whistled it. It sank down the well, the echoes of reverberating back up to them.
Then it stopped, and in its place they heard the sound of gushing water that grew steadily louder.
“Hraega’s Beard!” Peregrine exclaimed as she studied the depths of the well. The water that had remained tantalisingly out of reach now began to swell and climbed up through the well. It reached the lip of the well, and there it halted, surges of bubbles rising to the top and bursting.
They plunged their canteens into the now accessible water, filling them, draining them dry, and then filling them once more. Scooping up water in their hands, they splashed it across their dusty faces to clean them and to seek some relief from the heat. All thoughts, all attention focused on the water, hypnotised by it.
“We must seek a place where we can hide,” Peregrine at last announced, the first to recover wits enough to recall the precariousness of their situation. At the words, it was as if the spell that had touched them broke. Kharjii nodded and motioned for her to lead the way ahead.
Peregrine took them from the courtyard and onto one of the worn streets that headed deeper into the city, the facades of vacant buildings rising up around them, stone worked and at once imposing and yet elegant at the same time, though reduced to a shadow of their former glory. Where exact she led them, she did not know, meaning only to loose their pursuers in the maze of streets and buildings that made up the city.
There were other sounds to be heard in the city, beyond the tread of their feet, off in the distance, and faint, which at first they took to be just the moaning of winds as they whistled through empty buildings. Only after it picked up in intensity, and from more directions, did the dawning realisation come upon them that they were not alone in the city. Something else, something not Barazi and his men, lurked within.
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