BOOK II: ETERNITY AWAKES
Sands of the desert
Cover an ancient secret
Lost in time, it waits
“Kamen Desert is not natural. That much should be obvious to anyone who looks at it. The world contains a few small stretches of what we call ‘wastelands’, inhospitable areas charted by the wolves and studied by the rabbits, but otherwise of no use to sentientkind. However, just because they are of no use to us does not make them useless to other creatures. There are remarkable creatures that make the wastelands their homes: dune snakes, armored scorpions, birds that roost in hollow gourds, even a few species of hardy mice. There are useful dry grasses, flowering aloe plants, and even a few thin trees… there is much to be found if one takes the time to scratch the surface.
“Kamen Desert has none of those things. Travel far south enough from Unify, and after a certain point, the rolling hills of grass simply… stop. There is a dividing line, an eerily smooth line, separating the grasslands’ southernmost border from the miles upon miles of burning sand.
“To put it simply, there is nothing there. No plants, no animals, no water, nothing save for endless dunes of fine white sand reaching to the shores of the endless sea. Some see the place as an extension of the Beneath, for understandable reasons. Some claim that on the Day of Three Gods, the Death God’s terrible gaze landed directly on this area, cursing it barren forever more.
“And others… others theorize that Kamen Desert is where the Titans lived. The Titans, of course, are known from the very few surviving Lost Ages records as the world’s ninth sentient species, but they are long since disappeared. Preserved in museums throughout Unify are priceless ancient carvings and drawings of a giant people similar to the wolves and foxes, a people that built great angular towers to the skies and possessed forgotten magic. Though we have lost all but a fraction of what we knew of the world before the Species War, there is enough evidence to support that the Titans did indeed exist, and were not a creation of lore.
“If they did exist, though… where did they go, and why?”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
It was the same sun that shone down upon Tasakeru, Unify, and the rest of the world… but in the desert it was a sinister thing that sapped all life and water from the cursed place, leaving only sand and relentless heat. Even the wind here was beastly hot and dry as bone, and there were no trees or buildings to provide any kind of relief. That sun beat down upon Kamen Desert as if trying to punish mortals for their arrogance.
The lone source of shade was in a pit dug fifty meters deep into the sand, excavated by earth mages who had been paid handsomely for their service. Some mad, rich hobferret claimed half a year ago that he had received guidance from the Magus Aurum Ruby himself in a dream, and personally financed the mages to dig out here, here where there was nothing at all to be found. It was good work if one could get it, even if it was pointless… or so they thought.
The discovery shocked and amazed historians, explorers, and adventurers the world over. Fifty meters down, the reports said, the earth mages found something… not sand, but something solid. Everyone who could stand the heat joined in the excavation, with earth magic, shovels, and their own hands, until the solid thing beneath the sands was uncovered: an obelisk. One single, enormous obelisk made of sandstone and inscribed with ancient writing… For anyone who knew their history, it only meant one thing: a remnant of the Titans had at last been found.
Another month of frenzied digging ensued, for a hundred meters around the obelisk in all directions. They found an entrance to the ruin deeper down, and that was all… nothing else appeared to have survived. Disappointing, but it didn’t matter. Proof was proof.
At long last, after far too much hemming and hawing from the historical community and the Magistrate Representatives, the time had come to venture inside to see what could be found. Access to the obelisk was strictly controlled, with only the most notable historians, explorers, and their assistants allowed to even approach it. Doubtless there were priceless Lost Age artifacts inside that could make some folk rich beyond their wildest dreams, if they were crazy enough to bear the heat to get there, and skilled enough to make off with treasure without being caught.
That was where Faun Muranaka came in.
It took almost a month of work, from the moment she overheard a wandering wolf pack discussing the find at the Fool’s Rush Inn. A month of gathering her funds, reading book after book to learn the proper historical terminology, constructing a false identity, and making sure that she was the best candidate for the job of one of Lord Parsus’s assistants, so that the old rabbit historian had no choice but to select her to come along… It was an exhausting amount of effort, but it was all about to pay off, and how.
Swathed in white, heat-reflecting cloth, Faun stood on the lower edifice deep within the sandy pit and watched Parsus prance around, taking etchings of the ancient writing carved into the obelisk, oohing and ahhing over every new discovery, and generally acting like a child with a new toy. His other assistant was a nubile young jillrabbit, who hovered over his shoulder no matter where he went and nodded at anything he said, for reasons that Faun doubted had anything to do with an interest in history. She knew her type… For all that they prided themselves on scientific knowledge and logic and all those things Rowan loved to read about so much, biology was never far from a rabbit’s mind at any given time. No wonder there were so damned many of them.
“Now then,” said Parsus, straightening up and adjusting the tiny spectacles perched on the end of his nose. “Could either of you fine young ladies tell me what exactly it is that stands in front of us?”
“It’s a building!” chirped the jillrabbit, quite pleased with her cleverness.
Faun cringed and fought the urge to put her face in her hands. Why had she bothered to do so much research when Parsus brought along assistants like this idiot? What had possessed him to bring her along in the first place? There was an easy answer for that question, of course… or rather, two easy answers, about to burst out of the jillrabbit’s tight-fitting robes.
Parsus beamed at her and chuckled. He was too ecstatic with his findings to let the empty space below his assistant’s long ears bother him. “Hmm, yes, of course, Lady Laurentia, but what sort of building is it?”
“Judging by the depth of the structure, the age of the sandstone samples we’ve taken, and the general lack of ornamentation or statuary,” said Faun, “I would guess that the obelisk is some sort of Titan-era burial crypt, Lord Parsus.” Damn it all, she had read through half the archeology section in Rowan’s library to get into character. All that work was not going to go to waste if she had anything to say about it. It was a matter of pride.
“Excellent deduction, Lady…” Parsus paused. “I do apologize, Milady, but I seem to have forgotten your name again…”
“Granger,” said Faun with practiced ease, bowing to him. “Morgan Granger.”
“Of course, hmm, yes. My apologies, Lady Granger.”
“Anyway, hmm, yes,” continued Parsus, stroking his whiskers. “Certainly a structure intended to remain hidden. If we could only know what this script says!” Here he lovingly traced over a line of the ancient writing with his brush. To Faun, it looked like a collection of random crude pictures, mixed with lines and curving squiggles at odd angles to each other. “It’s clearly not related to Badgerscript, Wolven, or either form of Standard… pity. If it were, we might have some idea of what the obelisk’s purpose is. Sadly, understanding it will likely take months, even with all the linguists in Unify helping to translate… and until we know what we’re walking into, it’s far too dangerous to go inside. Gods only know what kind of magic the Titans guarded this place with.”
Laurentia adjusted her robes, and then slid up behind the historian, taking care to press her ample assets against his back. “What does this symbol mean, Milord?” she asked in a syrupy sweet voice, pointing to an oblong shape carved into the stone.
“Hmm, yes,” said Parsus, leaning in for a closer look. “I can only speculate, of course, but it might be some sort of fertility symbol, perhaps…”
“You’re so smart, Milord! I’ll bet that’s exactly what it is. Funny that you mentioned ‘fertility…’”
Unable to help herself, Faun rolled her eyes and cleared her throat, a bit louder than was strictly necessary. “Ahem. Excuse me. I’m going to take a look at the structure of the doors and entry arch, sir,” she said. Without waiting for an answer, she hurried around to the opposite side of the edifice before the two could get on with their impromptu biology lesson. Rabbits.
At least now, she wouldn’t be interrupted for a while… the crypt was hers and hers alone. Not often in Faun’s line of work could one simply walk in and have their choice of the loot. Obviously, it would be foolish to try to pick the place clean, but she had enough compression bombs on hand to sneak out a small storeroom’s worth of gold and jewelry. If she managed to sell just one treasure, let alone a room full of them? “Just you wait, Ma,” said Faun to herself, beaming from ear to pointed ear. “Your little girl’s finally gonna make it.”
She stopped outside the tall arch and enormous, open doors that marked the entrance, aflutter with that sense of nervous excitement that always preceded a big haul. Her fingers twitched at the thought… those idiots from the historical societies had the doors open, but they were so afraid of possible traps or protective magic on this place that they wouldn’t go inside for months yet. The thought of traps didn’t bother Faun in the least; what could an old wreck like this throw at someone who had been breaking in and out of places since she could walk? As for magic, well. In the unlikely event that any magic cast on the crypt was still in effect after Gods-knew-how-many years buried in the desert, it had to be a shadow of its former potency by now. If it wasn’t? She was fully stocked with explosives, too.
Still grinning, Faun stepped through the arch, into the cool, dark entrance hall, peeling off most of her heat robes along the way. The fact that she was the first sentient to set foot into this structure in thousands of years had no impact on her at all; nor did the significance of being inside a testament to the Titans’ former power. All that was on Faun’s mind was treasure, treasure, and more treasure…
As it was, Faun failed to notice the pictograms carved into the walls, pictograms depicting a leering, demon-faced figure backed by roaring flames, towering over tiny representations of the other sentient species. Almost like a tapestry, the images continued as the hall stretched on: the demon-faced one laughing as it was attacked by a mass of combined armies, then standing unharmed among their broken remnants. A massive hand raking the earth, and drawing twisted bodies from the soil. Those same twisted bodies bearing down on helpless people as they screamed in terror… she missed it all, more concerned with the present than the past.
A half-hour’s walk inside yielded no results, just more useless carvings and pictures… and a whole lot of dark. Night vision wasn’t much help when there was no natural light at all, so Faun fished inside her remaining robes for a branch and an incendiary from her boom belt. Bang went the marble-sized bomb as she cracked it over the wide end of the branch. The obelisk’s interior flared to life, flickering shadows danced on the walls. Stooping down low, Faun retrieved the spent halves of the bombshell. No sense in leaving it for the historians to discover.
It was as she straightened back up that she first saw it: the telltale shine of something made of precious metal. The vixen’s eyes widened as she beheld her first piece of Titan treasure: a necklace made of impossibly thin golden chains woven together, wrapped around the neck of a strangely plain soapstone bust depicting a severe face with tall, upswept ears. Hot damn! Faun raced to the column the bust sat upon, raising the torch high for a better look. It was gold, all right… nothing else in the world had that same kind of warm, lustrous gleam. A powerful need to have it for herself gnawed at Faun’s belly. She had always rather liked necklaces, and it was small enough to take without wasting a compression bomb…
Oh, shed it. I deserve this. Carefully, Faun reached out and unwrapped the golden chains from the bust’s neck. There was no mistaking the material: it was dense and heavy enough that it could only be pure gold.
The plain soapstone bust seemed to glare at her in the torchlight, in an admonishing way that reminded her far too much of Rowan. Faun snorted and rapped the likeness between its upswept ears. “And just what are you gonna do about it, huh?”
Click. As if in answer to her question, a section of the floor dropped out from beneath her… an entire panel of the stone retracted, opened, or simply vanished, she couldn’t tell which, leaving only a gaping dark pit behind.
“Pinch!” Faun swore and clutched at her heart, now pressed flat against the corridor wall opposite the bust. There was less than an inch of floor left to balance on… if it hadn’t been for that click, she might well be falling to her death right now. Somehow, she had kept a grip on both the necklace and the torch… the way its light flickered over the bust, she could have sworn it now wore a smug grin. The vixen stuck her tongue out at it, then carefully, carefully inched down the wall to the next section of the floor. Dijo, Faun. Whoever built this place was smarter than we thought, but we’re still breathing. Nothing to worry about. Think of all the treasure.
With that thought in mind, Faun stuck out one leg and tapped the next set of tiles with the heel of her cherry red boot. It made a solid, satisfying sound, but she wasn’t taking any more chances… The tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth as she tapped the tile harder, then the ones next to it. Nothing. As far as she could tell, it was safe. Slowly, slowly, Faun crept onto the tiles, low on her belly like a snake, testing her weight on each one before she moved across it, making sure it didn’t click, shift, or do anything out of the ordinary.
Again, nothing. Faun rose back up with an irritated sigh, brushing herself off with her tail. There. Now, let’s-
That thought went unfinished as the entire square meter of floor that she stood on tilted at a steep angle, sending her tumbling into the pit next to her before she could react. A torrent of loud and vicious profanity drifted up from the hole as she fell, down and down and down… and the bust smirked to itself in the sudden darkness.
Some time later, Faun awoke with a foul temper, a splitting headache, and a deep bruise forming on her shin. When she cracked an eye open, she made out the shape of her torch, smoldering amid a pile of embers a few paces away. The necklace was nowhere to be seen, presumably lost during her fall. Closer inspection revealed that she lay on the burst remains of an old cushion of some kind. Whatever stuffed it had long since rotted away to dust… and now that dust was everywhere: in her hair, in her fur, in her eyes, in her mouth…
“Mange!” hissed Faun, pressing her ears flat. “Mange, shed, pinching Godsdamned blue-furred son of a tainted, flea-bitten whore-” She continued in that fashion for a while, cursing the bust, the trap door, the necklace, the old cushion, the dust, the builders of this place (wherever they were), the Titans as a whole, and life in general for failing to provide her with what should have been an easy profit.
Some twenty minutes later, after having exhausted her entire store of profane vocabulary, she coughed and sat up, brushing off her gloves and using them to wipe the grit from her eyes. A few flexes confirmed that everything seemed intact; her shin still hurt like hell, but she could move it well enough, which meant it probably wasn’t broken. Faun rose shakily to her feet, swept back her auburn hair, adjusted her trademark red ribbon, and took a deep breath, an attempt to preserve what remained of her dignity.
Now that she took a closer look, she noticed that this corridor was far different from the ones above. Not only was there no treasure, there were no carvings and no adornments of any kind; the walls were smooth and bare. Baffled, Faun retrieved the torch and cracked another flare bomb over it. Raising it high confirmed that there was no decoration down the next stretch of the corridor, either… it was all blank and featureless.
I don’t get it, Faun thought to herself, scratching behind one ear. Was the trap designed to keep thieves down here or something? Why would anyone go through the trouble of hollowing out a passageway this deep down without keeping anything in it? Weird.
Another worry nagged at her: she had no idea if there was a way back to that trap door. No way back to the trap door meant there was no way to get back outside… Her stomach lurched at the thought. It would be months before anyone from the historical societies explored the upper floors, let alone found the lower ones. Boltpath stones likely wouldn’t help her get out of here, either… even if she had one, their enchantments tended to go haywire when used indoors.
Mange, she thought. Royally pinched now, aren’t we?
It seemed there was no alternative but to follow the blank corridor, so she did. After thirty paces, the corridor led her through a series of seemingly endless right angles, the distances between each one growing ever shorter. It’s a spiral, she thought. Looks like it leads to the center of… whatever this is. But if this supposed to be a maze, it’s a damned lousy one, nothing but right turns. Maybe they were trying to bore the thieves to death?
All the way through, there wasn’t a single pictogram on the walls, not one character of writing. The endless stretches of featureless stone began to give her an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Abruptly, the next turn took her to a much larger, wider room. Her relief from the growing feeling of claustrophobia was short lived when she saw what stood inside…
A shrine gate. It stood by itself in the center of the room, smooth, flawless, and entirely stark white. Aside from the color, it was identical in appearance to the old gates that guarded temples in and around Unify, with two pillars three meters apart, a straight tie beam ten meters up, and a gently curving lintel atop that. More unnerving, it was an exact match for the pure white gate in the depths of Tasakeru Forest, the one that they saw the Pale Deer disappear through over a month earlier…
Like that gate, this one marked no shrine or temple that she could see, and bore no markings on its pristine surface. It was simply there, in a place where no shrine gate should be… in fact, in the center of a crypt that predated the construction of any shrine she knew of by more than a thousand years.
Shuddering, Faun raised her torch and looked around at the walls of the room. They were blank and bare as any of the corridors she had walked through on this floor… no indication that this was a place of worship. Exactly like the gate in Tasakeru…
I don’t like this. The thought was a sudden, intrusive one, but it was impossible to shake. Coincidence was one thing, but the similarities here were downright disturbing. Her fur bristled as she took a few cautious steps toward the open space between the gate’s pillars… then, thinking the better of it, she went around the side of the gate instead. No sense risking it.
If I see another Pale Deer step out of a wall or something, shed the treasure, I’m getting the hell out of here.
Behind the gate was yet another corridor. And… Faun blinked and rubbed her eyes to be sure. It was no trick of the light… there was a faint red glow in the distance, shining off the featureless walls. Not a torch’s glow, either: the patterns of light on stone were slow, almost like liquid…
Faun ran for it, her tail streaming out behind her. Anything to get away from that gate. Around one final corner, in the center of the largest room yet, there was her quarry at last.
“Gods,” breathed Faun, It was the biggest ruby she had ever seen in her life, almost as large as her head. The jewel sat on a granite pedestal, held in place by three thin granite posts. A flawless square cut, the ruby’s facets were so sharp, so even, so perfect that one might slice their fingers open by touching them. There was a small, brilliant light within its center, like an imprisoned star, slowly brightening and fading in sequence as if the jewel were breathing.
Forget the lost necklace; this was a far better prize. It held Faun spellbound in its glow… she had never wanted anything as much as she wanted this ruby now. But the thought of the necklace, the bust, and the rigged floor gave her pause; better to check this one first to see if it was wired to a trap.
Sucking in a deep breath, Faun looked around at the new room. For the first time, she saw that its glow came not only from the ruby, but from a shimmering wall of red light that sliced the room in half. Some kind of magical barrier, no doubt… presumably an old and complex one. Behind the barrier, there was little else: a full-body mirror, a few decorative pillars, an enormous, muscular statue made of something like onyx, seated in a sandstone throne. The statue’s entire head was pure gold, by the look of it. Faun swallowed. Priceless, but it would be far too heavy to remove the head, let alone get it out of here. Better to leave it where it was. Of more interest were the carvings… every surface, it seemed, was inscribed with the same intricate runes and pictograms she had seen on the crypt’s outside and upper floors. Every surface; not just the walls, but the floors and even the pillars. Some historian would be able to write the thesis of a lifetime whenever they got down here.
Nothing else appeared to be in the sealed space, so Faun turned back to the ruby. With quivering fingers, she reached out to touch it…
An awful noise reverberated through the chamber, off every wall and floor and pillar. A rumbling bass noise from the darkest pits of the Beneath, a noise that brought to mind every nightmare she had ever had. Faun scrambled for the grenades in her boom belt and whirled around, her fur standing on end and her heart trying to claw its way out of her chest… What she saw made her pupils shrink to pinpricks.
The enormous golden-headed onyx statue behind the barrier was moving. Slowly it rose from its sandstone throne, climbing to its feet. One look at it and Faun could tell that it would tower over even Rowan, a good two and a half meters tall or more from its clawed feet to the tips of its pointed, upswept ears. It was no accident that she had mistaken it for a statue, for every inch of its sleek black-furred body rippled with muscle and sinew, a build one only saw in fanciful depictions of bygone eras. The only thing it wore was a knee-length strip of cloth around its waist, which had once borne intricate woven patterns, now faded with age. And its head…
The golden visage depicted a sharp, angular face with a long snout, and its eyes were thin, solid black slits of some kind of rock crystal. Its fanged jaws were molded shut, save for one dark hole between its front canine teeth… a hole through which that horrible rumbling bass noise came again as it stepped up to the barrier. Somehow, those black slit eyes stared right at Faun… it was looking at her…
Faun’s mouth opened wide in a silent scream as she collapsed against the ruby’s pedestal. Terror raced through her veins like ice water. Her grenades were forgotten, all she wanted was now was to get away from this thing.
The statue creature made that noise again. It pressed its huge hands against the barrier, splaying its club-like fingers open… and it stopped, making no attempt to push through or break the shimmering wall. It just stood there, as if-
It’s trapped. The realization slowed Faun’s frantic heartbeat just a bit. It’s trapped, it can’t get out. If it could, it would have by now. It’s trapped…
Again, that awful deep noise. The golden head tilted to one side.
Something clicked. “You’re talking,” said Faun in astonishment. “Oh Gods, you’re trying to talk to me. What are you?”
Rumble, said the statue creature, its… words? … vibrating through Faun’s bones.
“I-I can’t understand,” she said, spreading her hands and shaking her head.
Its head tilted more… and it nodded, very slowly. Moving away from the barrier, it crossed to one of the pillars in its half of the chamber, the pillars covered with the strange Titan script. As Faun watched, it brushed its massive hand over the pillar’s rough, engraved surface… and when it lifted away, the surface was as smooth as glass.
Only by thinking very hard about the ruby did Faun convince herself not to run for it then and there.
The statue creature went to work. With nothing more than its fingertip, it gouged new designs in the sandstone… not script this time, but pictures. Faun watched in awe as it worked, a stream of fine powder falling from each shape it carved out.
When the creature stepped aside ten minutes later, Faun found herself looking at a crude series of pictures: a depiction of the creature, standing behind a straight line that was clearly supposed to be the shimmering magic barrier, and herself on the other side, drawn (or carved) much smaller. Below that was a carving of the ruby on its pedestal… then another showing Faun lifting it out of place.
“You want me to-”
Rumble, said the creature, pointing lower.
Below that, Faun saw a carving of herself and the creature standing hand in hand, the wall having vanished. Below that… Faun’s eyes widened. Below that was another carving of herself, holding one ruby and surrounded by at least a half-dozen others. Even from a distance, she could recognize the depiction’s expression of joy.
“Wait,” said Faun slowly. “Let me see if I’ve got this.” Taking her time, she gestured to the creature, herself, the ruby, and the wall in sequence, trying to make herself clear. “If I take the ruby, it somehow shuts off the wall… then you give me more rubies?”
Rumble, said the creature.
“Dammit,” Faun hissed, stamping her foot. “Look! You, me, ruby, wall, more rubies!” She went through the whole sequence again, much faster this time. “Is that right or not? Yes? No?” At the end, she nodded, then shook her head, and shrugged her shoulders to indicate a question.
The creature nodded. It pointed to the ruby, imitated its shape with its hands… then spread them wide. The message was clear: many more rubies.
“And you won’t, you know, squash me like a bug if I let you out?” For this, Faun pointed to the creature, then to her own neck, and made a horrible face, rolling her eyes and sticking her tongue out.
The creature made a booming, repeating sound, and its shoulders shook: laughter, a sound rather like a battery of cannons firing. It shook its head, then raised one hand to its heart and bowed to her. Even bowing, it towered over her…
“All right,” said Faun as it stood back up. She nodded for emphasis. “All right. I’m trusting you. If you don’t come through on your end, I blow you up. Are we clear?” That was a harder concept to get across through hand gestures, but if it had trouble understanding, she could always provide it a demonstration. She had enough grenades.
Whether it understood or not, it nodded, then put its hands back on the barrier. Its golden head was as immobile and expressionless as ever, but somehow, Faun had a sense that it was… pleading. Desperate.
“All right,” said Faun, turning back to the ruby. “No tricks.” Laying her hands upon it, she got a good grip, and pulled hard…
The reaction was immediate. The shimmering barrier disappeared, and a sudden, violent wind rushed to fill the other half of the room, ruffling Faun’s fur and hair. At the same moment, the ruby crumbled to dust in Faun’s hands, and was swept away by the wind. She shrieked in outrage, reaching for her belt…
A huge hand took her by the shoulder and spun her around, power thrumming in its fingertips. The creature took to one knee, grasped her hand with surprising gentleness, and brought it to its golden lips. Once more, it spoke in that rumbling bass voice… this time, in New Standard…
“Milady,” it said. The words that emerged from the hole were raw and choked with emotion… warmth, sorrow, hope, and a fair bit of disbelief mixed in. “You have my eternal gratitude for freeing me. For three thousand years, I was imprisoned and forgotten here…”
Paralyzed with shock, Faun did nothing to extricate herself from its grip. “Th-three thou- th-that’s not possible… Who… and what are you?!”
It… he… rose to his full, towering height, bowed to her once more, and spoke: “I am…” He paused, searching for the right words. “A remnant. You called us ‘Titans’, and we ruled this world… We, the jackals, were once the greatest civilization under the sun. However, I fear that now our age is long over, and that my title suits me more than ever. You may call me Seker… the Last.”
END OF CHAPTER 1