Valley of Death h

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Submitted by Syndra, Merit in February 2019 cycle themed "Maps".

The moans of the dying stirred the stagnant air.

Funeral pyres blazed in the centre of Ceylon. Fiery tongues licked from the pyramid-like tips, hissing smoke and ash into the night sky. Charred bones shifted and cracked over the burning wood. Occasionally the marrow broke, sending sparks flying into the smoke-filled darkness.

The acrid stench of burning hair and flesh formed a miasma in the air. Though the men who stood around the bonfires were long immune to it. Their eyes dry. The set of the jaws one of purpose and conviction. A few bore a mask around their nose and mouth, made from torn clothes and discarded cloth. They ignored the latent cries and the mewling from the sheet-wrapped bundles stacked at their feet. The hardship of death was not on those passing out of this world, but on those who survived to witness it.

"Why would the Gods curse us," the youngest among them whispered. The flames gleamed in his eyes. No more than a teenager, he was helpless to look away from the burning bodies. The sheets melted onto liquefying flesh, sloughing off until only the skeleton remained.

Tharder turned away. He'd stood watch over the past week as the corpses stacked higher and higher. Once he had been a blacksmith, one of renown in the Valley. Now he was an executioner. Life had been good, but things had changed once the last of Sinope and Callisto's bloodline left. The favour of the Gods had gone with them. Crops failed. The weather grew fraught.

And now, a plague.

The once proud city of Ceylon laid buried beneath decaying cadavers and ashes of the dead. The fell sickness wiped out most of the population in a fortnight. The healers didn't know where it came from or how to cure it. Only that it spread from person-to-person, young and old, withering even the strongest into a husk of their former selves. Their eyes bled. Body functions failed, and huge weeping sores appeared on their skin.

Tharder turned his gaze to the moon which gleamed argent in the dark sky. Flakes of ash descended like vile snow onto his upturned face. The fragile debris baptised him in the remnants of the dead. He closed his eyes as a man grunted behind him. A whisper of movement shifted the air around him. Then new screams shrieked through the air as another body - not yet dead - screamed beneath the merciless power of Kkractle.

Those left were the survivors. Few in number, they resisted the rigours of the disease. Now the burden of life fell to them. There was not enough workers to burn the dead or care for the ill. Which left only fire.

May the Gods have mercy on our souls.

"We can't stay here," Tharder said over the crackling flames. The heat beat against his back. Sweat stuck his home-spun tunic to his flesh.

"Where should we go?"

Tharder didn't turn to face the man. To turn would be to bear witness to what they'd done, bear the sin of burning those not yet dead. Instead, his gaze remained on the blighted horizon, imagining a far-off land. One away from the eyes of the Gods.

"Anywhere," Tharder whispered. "Anywhere but here."

"We can't just abandon our home," Oblem's grandson voice quivered as he huddled against the table.

In three days hence, the remaining citizens of Ceylon would travel north. They'd rallied behind Tharder, now their defacto leader. They would leave behind the 'Golden Land', and head into the unknown. Perhaps following in the path of the Offspring, or finding new, uncharted lands. Tharder didn't want to face the any of those who'd left. His path was deliberately away from the ones Anake and the others chartered. How could he explain to them that he'd failed the city their parents gave to them?

Most of the citizens were agreeable to Tharder's plan. Why would they stay behind? In the wake of so much death, all that remained was silence. Grief was not a loud emotion, but one fraught with deep confusion. Huge holes existed in their society. Entire families were simply eradicated by the plague. They were running out of supplies, and the once profitable society had fallen into chaos.

There were a few holdouts like Oblem who thought they could return. Someday. Somehow.

"It's foolish to stay here," Oblem replied. He didn't want to leave Ceylon. Each morning it was a struggle to wake from Valnurana's grasp. He fought to get his old bones out of bed. If he left the valley, he would never see it again. Over the past week as Tharder enacted his contingency, the ancient scholar and those of his generation decided to stay behind. They would slow the young ones down.

"I don't want to leave you Grandpa." The boy's voice grew teary. Only just thirteen, he'd lost his immediate family within hours of each other. Mother. Father. Sister. All ashes to the funerary fires which still burned. All that remained of his bloodline was Oblem, useless for anything but his mind.

"I know." Oblem's age-spotted hands shook as he gathered his grandson close. He hugged the boy's lithe body against his frail one. The unfairness of mortality apparent in the young and the old. "I'll draw you a map, that way when it's time, you can return. Even if the others don't."

Oblem didn't tell the boy that he would likely be dead before their return. That the very soil was blighted by the bodies and corpses they'd buried, the air vile with the burning.

The boy pulled back and wiped at the tears which streaked his cheek. "How? There's nothing left. They confiscated the supplies for our journey."

The old man frowned. His rheumy eyes grew distant as he glanced at the undulating flame of candle flickering on a table. It was late, and he was risking Tharder's wrath for burning wax at this hour. There was a way, but was it worth the pain?

Finally, he turned back to his grandson. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes, you're the only one I do."

Oblem nodded once. "Sit," he said. His body protested as he climbed to his feet, vacating the high-back chair to his progeny. Blood drummed in his ears as he swayed, lightheaded and dizzy, before righting himself. More and more, each time he stood, he felt like he was going to pass out.

Just one more thing to do. Then he could pass out of this world knowing that his heritage, and his bloodline, were safe.

The old man shuffled to the armoire in the corner, and pulled out supplies. Vials of ink. A needle. The tools of his former trade as a tattooist were slowly drawn from the past and into the present.

Oblem carried his burden back to the table. Picking up the needle, he held the thin metal the flame, his voice as ephemeral as the smoke pluming in front of him.

"I will make you a map you will never lose."

In the early hours of the last night of Ceylon, an old man carved a way home into the back of his grandson.

The men came on foot, wielding magic recklessly.

The first held an etched staff before him like a torch. Atop the wooden crest, a pulsing crystal lit up the darkened surroundings. Elemental fire wreathed the man's hand. The magic formed a lash, burning a path through the thick vegetation of the Atrousian Jungle in sinuous flicks. Firelight flared over ancient banyan trees and jade-leaf bamboo. Smoke mixed into a stifling melange of burning leaves and crushed flowers.

Close at his heels, Silek peered into the rope-like vines that hung from the canopy. The mhun's body vibrated with anxiety. Frequently, his chemical-stained fingers sketched symbols in the air and a translucent shield shimmered around him. A few paces behind them both, a mountainous crystalline golem stood watch. The creation's latent hum, the sizzling of greenery, and the faint babble of the Mnemosyne river were the only sounds in the wood.

The men didn't notice the absent birdsong.

Should anyone came upon the pair, they wouldn't draw attention. How often did a magi and a mhun wander through the lost reaches of Meropis? Both wore nondescript short-sleeved leather jerkins and trousers meant to protect from the wilds. Multi-pocketed backpacks bounced against their shoulders. The mhun bore a starburst tattoo on his neck, denying a visit to the Finality should anything happen. A moon tattoo gleamed from the forehead of the other. Together, they appeared like any other adventurers on a quest.

The wizard was a rogue. He held no interests except gold, ale, and willing wenches. The mhun had met him at the Brass Lantern Inn, slinging back drinks at the bar. As men were wont to do when liquor flowed, the mhun chattered, and the magi listened. In the end, the alchemist paid exorbitantly for the others help as a guide. If anyone outside of this paid mercenary suspected just where the mhun intended to go, or what he planned, they would have stopped him.

Some secrets should stay hidden.

Later, they would say that his life-long wish to uncover esoteric artefacts made him mad. How else could they explain what led him so far astray? There was only a fine line between insanity and greatness.

Silek wanted greatness. It was written in the stars. His ambition knew no bounds.

This ambition led him to Meropis. The second continent was a vastly uncharted territory, bisected by the Vasnari Mountains, and ribboned with the gleaming blue trail of the Mnemosyne river. The lush Atrousian Jungle laced the upper part of the continent, and at its heart was the reported capital of Selecular. Amateur treasure hunts all sought their fortunes here. More found their deaths. Despite the danger, it is there that the mhun and his companion travelled. But it wasn't Selecular he searched for.

Ceylon beckoned, the city of his ancestors long before they'd become 'mhun' and turned Moghedu into their living tomb.

The magi's fist jerked, and the last of the rope-like vines withered and died. Both men recoiled, and the magi swore a sharp curse.

"What the fuck is that." In his shock, the sorcerer muttered aloud.

A mound of blackened skulls glared at the men from empty sockets. They sat heaped at the base of a massive stone column. Revulsion shuddered through the cartographers, and the hardtack biscuits he'd eaten for breakfast threatened a reappearance.

"It's nothing, just a warning." The mhun pulled a stained handkerchief and mopped his brow.

Silek wasn't old, despite the lines seamed on his face and the ancient quality to his faded green eyes. His stooped stance spoke of one who'd spent decades hunched over in small spaces.

A miner turned scholar.

Not an adventurer.

What was he doing out in the uncharted wilds? He'd heard of the monstrous hydroforms, the infamous lightning eagle, and the dead which still fought their war in Mourning Pass each night. There was lunacy going into the unknown with only a magi on hand. Yet he insisted.

Now death stared them both in the face.

More sweat pooled uncomfortable down the mhun's spine. Silek hadn't expected the jungle could be so hot. The man was from the west, where the cool mountain air kept the temperature brisk and breezy. While he'd been born in the mines, his middle years were lost in the great libraries of Cyrene and New Thera.

The magi ignored the skulls and bent low before the lichen-decorated ruins. A red-gold ball of fire floated in his palm, casting half of the man's face in an eerie glow, while illuminating the glyphs etched into the stone.

"What does it say," the magi asked through the telepathic link they shared as he turned to the mhun.

Hope churned in the Mhun's gut as he stepped forward. Could this be it? Could he have found the first way-point to uncovering the Golden Land?

The mhun stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket.

Now wasn't the time to let weakness prevail. He'd come so far.

Years ago, after his father had passed into the Finality, the mhun received an heirloom. A family secret. A map to Ceylon, tattooed on the back of an ancestor. When his ancestor died, the map had been cut free of his flesh and preserved. Passed down from one person, to the next, in hope of finding one who would lead the mhun back to Ceylon.

He had learnt cartography. He studied how to look upon the landscape and see what was hidden by the shifting earth and the travels of time. And here, in the heart of the Jungle, he'd found the first way-point.

The man's fingers shook as he reverently touched the inscription.

"I can't believe it's real." The mhun hadn't meant to speak the words aloud.

"You believed enough to hire me."

Their voices carried through the too quiet jungle. For the first time, Silek realised that nothing stirred here.

"Everyone said it was a fool's tale."

"Now you've showed them they are the fools. Come, come. Translate the inscription, we don't have all night."

The mage's word propelled Silek. Hastily he tore up underbrush, clearing the rest of the inscription. The monolith rose only five-feet in the air. Taller than a dwarf. Short enough that vines and trees hid it.

"Point your staff over here," the mhun commanded as he pulled out a journal from his pack and got to work. Using a piece of charcoal, he sketched the runes adorning the pillar's face. His mind worked faster than his hand.

After awhile, the mhun's voice whispered through the air.

"Death is all that remains. If you have come this far, it's already too late."

A shudder ran through Silek, the icy chill of death that his starburst tattoo saved him from.

"What does that mean," the magi spun towards Silek with magic crackling over his hand. "You told me there was gold and treasure. What is this death? What is with the skulls?"

Silek shook his head and backed up from the powerful magi. A loud crack resounded underfoot. The mhun froze and glanced down. Aged bone, crushed now into a fine powder, caked his boot. He jerked his head and took another look at the monolith.

"No, it can't be," Silek whispered.

How else could he explain the bones and skull though?

"What," the magi growled.

Silek closed his eyes. Hope and disbelief created a sickening wave inside of him. Not everyone had left Ceylon following Tharder. They'd been born in Ceylon. They would die there.

The mhun had found what he wanted. The last monument ever built in Ceylon. Which meant that he stood in the middle of the lost city. Not a way-point as he'd thought. But actual Ceylon. Where the pyres burned. Where the ashes of his ancestors melded into the soil.

Where death waited all stupid enough to wander into the city. This isn't what he wanted. He knew better than to enter Ceylon proper.

Shaking his head, Silek touched the inscription again. His fingers came away sticky, an oily layer of soot and something else clung to the stone.

"This is Ceylon," Silek said.

"Where is the treasure?"

Silek shook his head again. How could he explain the colossal error he'd just made?

The mhun pulled his backpack over his arm carefully pulled the section of smoked mhun skin out. The marks and paths tattooed into the hide were hard to read, but his fingers traced the path he'd taken when he'd reached Meropis, and followed back to the point where he now stood.

X didn't mark the spot, but a skull did.

"Death is the only thing that remains," Silek said. He closed his eyes as his fingers darted in the air. Quick as silverfish, he sketched runes and symbols in the air.

There. Invading a temper, he felt something that shouldn't be.

His hands fell to his sides.

"The plague," he mumbled from numb lips. "It's still active here."

The magi swore and jumped away from the pillar.

Only it was too late. For the both of them.

The map fell from Silek's hand as he stared into the mocking faces of his ancestries. The ghosts of the long-forgotten past rose up, laughing at his arrogance.

Oblem's family had returned home, just as he'd wished his grandson to do so long ago.

Only instead of life, his bloodline would die here in his stead.