Category Archives: 5.05
The limestone walls had been ground to near perfect smoothness by the sand and the wind. Even now, a turbulent sandstorm beat on the outer walls, and Jova could hear the pitter patter of sand grains against the crumbling entrance of the pyramid, like hard rain.
She huddled in her corner, waiting for the storm to subside. She knew just how precarious her situation was. She had no food, no water, and no plan. She was trapped in a desert that seemed intent on swallowing her whole, and her only shelter was a pyramid shunned for centuries for being cursed and haunted.
Despite all that, Jova wasn’t scared. She was beyond scared.
In these dusty, crumbling walls, Jova couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid. She had been afraid for too long. She clasped her hands together and huddled in further into the wall. “Ladies Four, I thank you,” she whispered. “I thank you for…”
She paused. She didn’t know what to say. She had run and run since her escape from the slavers, until she had stumbled into the shadow of the fifth pyramid, and what had the Ladies Four sent her? A kindly merchant, to guide her on her way? An oasis, for her to rest and recuperate?
No. They had sent her a sandstorm.
“I thank you for nothing,” said Jova. “I thank you for nothing.” She put a hand over her mouth, shocked at what she had just said. Jova sat and waited for punishment, but it did not come. Her heart skipped a beat.
“I have had a bad life,” said Jova, to the spirits of Ral Zu and any other gods or goddesses that cared enough to listen. “I have had a…a…a shitty life.” No one said anything to her. No one told her stop, no one threatened her, no one was there to listen and be disappointed.
“I’ve had a shitty life,” she repeated, in a hushed whisper. She stood up and held her arms out, screaming over the sound of the howling storm. “I’ve had a shitty life!”
Her voice echoed in the long halls of Ral Zu as she took a step forward. “My life is terrible!” she shouted, down the hall. She did not care that the pyramid was haunted or cursed or falling apart. She stormed as far into the catacombs as she dared, her angry screams bouncing around her. “Do you hear me, dead emperor? Do you hear me, Ladies Four? I’d like to see you live like I have! I’d like to see you live after your eyes have been gouged out!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, waiting for a response. Her legs were sore from the constant running, and her head pounded from exhaustion and dehydration. She didn’t care.
“You made me think it was my fault,” she whispered, fists clenched. The storm outside seemed to be growing louder. “I told myself that it was always my fault! That if only I fixed myself, then things would get better! Did they, Ladies Four? Did they get better?”
Jova slammed her fist into the stone wall, and did not care how much it hurt. “How is it my fault that I had to spend eight years without a home? How is it my fault that I was a better fighter than Arim? How is it my fault that I had to leave Moscoleon without getting to say goodbye?”
Her hair, dirty and unwashed and uncut, had fallen around her face. Da’s warrior braid had long ago been undone by the elements.
“It’s not my fault.” Jova felt a pounding in her chest, a heat, a writhing. She tightened her fists. “It was never my fault.” She twisted around and screamed into the endless dark. “It was your fault! Damn you! Damn you, and your games! Damn you, and Copo, and Zain, and Ya Gol Gi, and Roan!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, red in the face. She felt something else entirely different stir in her heart.
It was peace.
Jova took a step into the darkness. The storm still raged outside, in tune to Jova’s tingling nerves. Even though the air was cool and still inside the pyramid, Jova’s skin burned. She kept walking into the stone tomb.
She had something to prove.
Her steps continued to echo as she walked further into the pyramid, and now that Jova had stopped speaking, and the sound of the storm was growing more and more distant, she began to realize just how quiet the pyramid was. She did not know how far it went; she had only found her way in after crawling through a crumbling hole in the walls, and had no idea the scale or scope of Ral Zu.
Jova kept her hand on the walls as she walked, counting the steps under her breath so she wouldn’t get lost. The passageway was linear as far as Jova could tell, but she felt uneasy anyway. Even if she had been able to see, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to navigate Ral Zu with getting lost.
As Jova walked, she felt her heart slow. The anger and frustration were fading, but they did not disappear entirely. It had forged something inside her, like heat and pressure smelted an Irontower sword.
Her foot bumped against something hard, and Jova tensed. She poked her toe against it, fearing the worst, but it was just a stone outcrop. She clicked her tongue, and to her surprise a steep set of what sounded like stairs stretched on before her. Jova walked slowly, lifting her feet high as she moved from step to step.
It had to go up, she imagined, up to the very point of the pyramid. Although, hadn’t Roan said the pyramid was unfinished? Jova wondered if she was walking right back up into the storm, but she felt no wind, no prickle from the biting sand.
Her hands traced something like a doorway. Jova stepped hesitantly off the stairs: the acoustics were already somewhat strange in here. She clicked her tongue once.
She stopped dead.
This new chamber was cavernous. The echo stretched on for longer than it ever had, in the Teeth of the Abyss or in Moscoleon’s grand houses of the pontiffs, longer than anywhere Jova had been. On either side of her, more stairs descended down, and the floor of the chamber was littered with smaller objects, although Jova was too far away to tell their size and shape.
That wasn’t what worried her, though. What worried her was the thing in the center of the chamber. She did not know what it was, but its size could not be denied. It was not moving. Jova could only hope it did not decide to.
She walked down the stairs slowly, keeping her back flat against the wall. It was a long drop, if she slipped over the edge.
Her footsteps echoed as she walked. Jova swore she could still hear her first click echoing, but that was probably just her imagination. Nothing else made a sound, and no sound entered this solemn chamber. The storm outside could have stopped altogether and she would not have realized it.
On floor level, Jova clicked again. Hundreds of refracted sounds bounced back to her; Jova reached out a hand to touch the object closest to her, and realized she must have been standing in a gallery of these stone and clay statues. Her questing hands continued to explore as she walked forward, and Jova found that there weren’t just statues down here: tables and bookcases, metal jugs and urns, even what felt suspiciously like a coffin. Propelled onward by curiosity and just a little fear, Jova kept walking towards the center. If these small offerings were all man-made, what could the thing at the center possibly be?
Despite herself, Jova found herself smiling. Her hand wrapped around a tattered silk ribbon, and stroked the head of a porcelain horsehare. These were but trinkets, and not even frightening ones at that. They seemed to imply a gentler and kinder life.
Jova reached out, but found only empty space. She clicked. She was right next to the thing at center of the chamber, which had a wide berth of space around it. The sudden emptiness made Jova’s heart quicken, but she swallowed her fear. She was afraid of no dead emperor. She was afraid of no curses, or forgotten magic, or empty superstitions.
She approached, and reached out.
Her fingers touched gnarled wood, thick and twisted like a great root. Jova walked further hesitantly, until she touched at last the base of the mighty tree. “A hollow?” whispered Jova. That was the secret of Ral Zu? It had been so easy to find, so easy to access. What did they mean, this pyramid was cursed?
And then Jova bent double.
Her skin burned like it had been set alight. She gagged and coughed, collapsing over the root of the tree, sucking in breath through lungs that had suddenly closed. Jova held her throat, writhing, and hacked out a single breath as she spat blood over the ground. She felt like her brain was boiling inside her own head, and she could not tell up from down. Was it air she needed, or water?
Jova’s vision—Jova’s vision—flashed before her. She gasped in breath at the sheer shock of it. It was more than a memory, more than some dusty recollection, but it wasn’t quite as real as it should have been. It seemed hazy, incomplete, the details blurred or unfinished.
All around her was stark, pure white. Jova looked down, and saw in her stomach, as if she could see through her, something glowing, twisting, thrashing. It burned with an odd green hue, and though Jova saw her insides bleed where it cut her, she felt a strangely calm unconcern.
She looked up, and shrank back. A silhouette of a man stood before her, but it was not a man at all. It was made entirely from bark and wood, like some ramshackle doll pasted together from the nearest pieces some forest-dwelling entity could find. It stood, back straight, arms to its sides, featureless face turned to Jova. Two slits that glowed amber gold stared at Jova with the same apathy that she felt weighing on her.
The eyes slid down to Jova’s gut, where the thing still thrashed, and Jova saw its expression, or what there was of it, change immediately. She shuddered. The bark-made man had a look of pure hatred on its face.
Then the vision was gone, and Jova was left gasping and shuddering on the floor of Ral Zu. She was surrounded by darkness again, a darkness that would never again leave her.
The heat disappeared, as quickly as it had come. Jova could breathe again, and she did so gratefully, her hands shaking as she tried to get up.
She couldn’t, though, because the ground had begun to shake.
“What is wrong with this place?” snarled Jova, as she stumbled to her feet. A deep, bass hum reverberated throughout the massive chamber, with the shuddering and shaking of every pot, table, and statue joining in as accompaniment. It might have been Jova’s imagination, but the tree itself seemed to be moving.
She ran. Crashing through the decorations or offering or whatever they were, Jova ran through the gallery, back to the flight of stairs, back out into the passageway and back into the room where she had first entered, where the ground was not shaking and the wind had stopped howling. She clutched her knees, gasping for breath, without the faintest clue as to what had just happened.
Jova tried to put the facts together in her head. She had touched the great tree—perhaps it was a hollow, perhaps it was not, although what normal tree would grow to such titanic size?—and then she had felt the sudden sickness in her chest. It had stopped after the humming and shaking began, but not after the vision of the man made of wood.
There was nothing for it. All Jova could conclude was that the curse of Ral Zu was a strange one indeed. As she slowly made her way back to the crumbling hole in the wall, and began to haul herself over it, Jova chuckled. A fearsome curse it may have been, but she had survived it. That counted for something.
She stood in the sand, in the shadow of the pyramid, wondering where to go next. Her mouth was parched, and she had somehow cut her lip during her little adventure. Now, more than ever, Jova felt a need to rest. Perhaps, if she just slept in the very outer rooms of the pyramid, it would be safe to spend the night there…
Jova heard footsteps in the sand, and heard a low, sibilant hiss. She began to run before she even processed the sound. A wild predator? Or something altogether more dangerous?
“Only one place for a devil to run in this desert!” shouted a voice that made Jova’s heart sink. “What demons of the deep did you consort with in that tomb, little girl?”
Ya Gol Gi approached fast, far too fast for Jova to outrace him. She made for the pyramid. She was smaller and more agile, and would have the advantage inside the cramped passageways and rooms.
Something cracked over Jova’s back, and she fell to the ground, screaming. The scabs that had only just begun to heal opened again, as the barbed whip ripped into Jova’s back.
“Zat, Lo Pak!” shouted Ya Gol Gi, and Jova felt something as large as Stel or Uten stand over her. Hot breath steamed in Jova’s face even as clammy, slimy paws rolled her over. “I should kill you on the spot for your little trick,” snarled Ya Gol Gi. “But I am thinking instead I will bring you back to camp and make an example of you before anyone else with similar ideas.”
Jova didn’t fight back as Ya Gol Gi slung her over the beast’s back and began to ride away. Now was not the time, not with her still out of breath and the creature so close and ready to kill.
Only, if now was not the time, then when would it be?
“Zat zat, Lo Pak!” snapped Ya Gol Gi, egging the creature on. “Mosh sag aga kuar han, yag gar.”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Zat zat” meant “go faster,” and “yag gar” meant “dirty animal.” Ya Gol Gi seemed awfully anxious for a man who had already captured his escaped slave.
The girl tightened her fists, and readied herself. She would not rely on the fortune of the Ladies any longer. She would make her own luck.
“Do not think to try anything more, devil girl,” said Ya Gol Gi. “Since the storm, we have not moved. The camp is in sight. If-.”
It was too late. Jova grabbed Ya Gol Gi around the waist and spun off the animal’s back. With a strangled yelp, Ya Gol Gi fell off his mount, and landed with Jova into the sand. They rolled down the dune, Jova thrashing and kicking even as Ya Gol Gi struggled to push her off him. His hand pushed against Jova’s face, his whole meaty palm wrapping around Jova’s mouth, and she struggled to breathe even as she punched indiscriminately at Ya Gol Gi’s face and chest.
Jova’s hand hit Ya Gol Gi’s ribcage, and suddenly he let go, crying out in pain.
Of course! Jova flexed her fingers. He had been hit just a few hours previously, square in the chest, by Stel’s hooves. That wouldn’t heal anytime soon. Jova began to strike at his ribs and chest repeatedly, her knuckles already sore and raw from hitting him so hard, and Ya Gol Gi’s screams turned to silent gasps at Jova’s unrelenting assault.
With a pained roar, he grabbed Jova by the shoulders and flipped her over, pinning her to the ground. Jova scrabbled desperately against Ya Gol Gi’s waist and side, as he pushed her face into the sand. Her hand closed around something hard, and round, and small.
Before she even ripped it out of his belt, Jova concentrated hard on the tabula.
Ya Gol Gi’s hand loosened at the same time the humming began. The tabula was vibrating hard in Jova’s hands, and though it took all her concentration to do it, it was working. Jova gasped, and Ya Gol Gi twitched, but just a second later he was under control again. The girl extracted herself from under the slaver, even as he knelt frozen in the sand.
“Who else knows?” asked Jova, the words coming painfully as she tried not to break her focus. “Who else knows?”
Slowly, Ya Gol Gi shook his head, and Jova knew it had to be truth.
“You didn’t tell,” Jova breathed. She had to speak aloud, it was too hard to think otherwise. “You didn’t tell anyone. Because…you would have been shamed even more. Tricked by a blind girl into thinking a mutt’s tabula was hers, after you had already been beaten by a crippled slave. Is that right?”
A slow nod. It was the oddest sensation, knowing that Ya Gol Gi had nodded without actually seeing it. Jova felt a phantom pressure on her neck, like she herself had lowered her head.
A voice shouted out from atop the dune, and Jova almost lost control right then and there. “Hide,” she spat, to Ya Gol Gi, as she pressed her back into the sand. It was paltry cover, but all the cover she had. Don’t look down, Jova thought. Don’t look down, don’t look down.
“There you are, Lo Pak,” said Dep Sag Ko, and the eelhound bayed and hissed. “Where is Ya Gol Gi? What did he need you for?” Dep Sag Ko took a step out, and despite Jova’s previous resolutions she closed her eyes and prayed. “Ya Gol Gi! Where are you?”
Jova twitched, as the tabula began to shake even more in her hands. She turned to her head to the side and saw—no, felt—that Ya Gol Gi’s eyes were bugging out, his mouth opening by fractions. “Silence,” whispered Jova, and though the humming grew louder, Ya Gol Gi did not speak.
“First the assistant girl, now him. Nobody wants to talk to old Dep Sag Ko now that u-ha has taken a liking to the new beastmaster,” grumbled Dep Sag Ko, as he walked away. “Lo Pak, gha de sal.”
Both Dep Sag Ko and the eelhound left, their feet crunching on the sand. Jova relaxed, and turned to face the man staring blankly into the distance next to her. The tabula had not stopped humming, and her head was starting to pound.
She needed to stay with this group, Jova realized, at least until they were closer to civilization. There was nowhere for her to go in this desert. And she could do it. There was only one thing that had to be done.
“Tell me again,” said Jova, standing, brushing sand off her coza. “You have told no one else?”
“Where is the tabula you thought was mine? Did you summon the pigwolf? What happened to it?”
“With…u-ha,” grunted Ya Gol Gi, through gritted teeth. “Yes…did it…when no one was looking. Locked it…up. Planned on killing it…after I killed you.”
Jova nodded. That was all she needed to hear. Fang she could free and keep alive, and there was already a rumor stirring in Jova’s brain she could spread, one about a newly freed slave who always made sure to finish the fight and bury his enemies. There was only one order left to give. Jova tightened her grip, and took a deep breath.
“Collapse, and stop breathing,” said Jova. She heard Ya Gol Gi fall to the ground, gagging and convulsing. “Collapse, and die.”
The tabula hummed until it began to crack and shatter in her hand. “Damn you,” Jova whispered, as she listened to the man choke to death on her order. “Damn you and everyone like you.” She felt no pity, no regret, and no remorse.