Jes in the morning
The northern sky paled with the coming dawn. The dire sounds of the night began to ebb away with the advent of morning and with a whisper, Jes brought down the protective wards on the curtain hiding her cubby. After stretching to remove night-time kinks and cricks, she pushed aside the heavy curtain and looked out at the world. An eddying and heavy mist clung to the ground a hundred feet below her and she knew a few denizens of the night still scurried, seeking their deep tombs and crypts, where they would wait out the bright of the day.
It would be another sunny and cool day in Lu Tarna, and Jes sucked in deep lungfuls of the desert air before turning back to her camp. So far, her journey out to this forsaken corner of Tuyakh had been a complete bust. Every sepulchre, charnel house and ossuary contained nothing but the day-stilled dead and their sarcophagi. There was no treasure to be found, not even a pottery shard or a cartouche. There was nothing but the stench of old evil, muted during the long, cool days but awoken at night to be a malevolent, prowling force, slaying anything foolish and unfortunate enough to wander into their path.
Jes was no unfortunate. She had been dodging the restless dead of Lu Tarna for weeks now, weaving in and out of its endless palaces and mausoleums, always wary of the impending dusk and the need to find high ground away from the dead’s cold, grasping fingers. They’d nearly gotten her a few times, after she’d lost her way in the warrens and mazes that constituted the ruins of the old city. Her honed sense of direction saved her, as well as her martial ability and strength, refined by years as an adventurer and ruin-comber. No revenant or ghost was going to take her unawares, that much she vowed to Inaja, her favourite god of the moment.
The northern sky went through lightening shades of rose and purple, till finally the white orb of the sun appeared at the far, smoky horizon. Jes undid the cod-piece of her leather trousers and squatted, sighing as the night’s liquid accumulation exited her body in a yellow squirt. There was nothing like a good morning’s piss, she told herself. No, perhaps it was bettered by a good morning’s shit, but for the time being, there was no need there, mainly as she had nothing in her bowels to expunge. Food had been hard to come by in the twisted and dusty old laneways and streets of Lu Tarna, with only the rare gerbil or cobra to serve as sustenance.
Back inside her cubby, she washed her hands and face from the meagre rainfall she’d collected several nights ago, saving some to moisten her lips. Earlier in her forays around this desolate locale, she’d noted a canal a few miles to the north and that was her goal this morning, once the fog had cleared and the dead resumed their graves. Thirst was beginning to mess with her senses and she knew if she didn’t get a decent intake of water soon, she’d be joining the ranks of the deceased in their nightly prowls.
She went outside and sat cross-legged at the edge of the platform her cubby was located on, patiently waiting for the sun to fully clear the horizon. Her breakfast was the remains of a grilled lizard of some variety she’d caught yesterday, and she gnawed on the unsavoury thing, mildly thankful for the sheer easy fact she had anything to eat at all. With her hunger far from sated, she hurled the bones of the creature over the edge and readied herself for the day.
After donning her knives and strapping her sword across her back, she flung the rope over the edge of the platform and shimmied her way down the rough sides of the tower, which in olden days, had served as an observatory for the astronomers in the service of whatever satrap despot ruled Lu Tarna. Looking for favourable portents and omens in the stars, no doubt. Whatever their cause was, it failed them in the end, and their bones now mouldered with the other dead in the hundreds of tombs scattered throughout this vast city.
Halfway down, Jes’s head swam, her body roiling from hunger and thirst. Looping the rope around one foot, she stood on it with the other, to shift weight off her arms; a venerable rope-climbing trick known by the proficient since antiquity. Like this, she rested for a few moments, breathing heavily, and cursing the crazy rumour that brought her to this sad necropolis in the first place. The wealth of generations, so she’d heard. Every tomb bursting with jewels, gold and silver, bolts of the finest silk, rare spices and the most alluring perfumes, or so had gone the talk.
The only perfume was the faded stench of death and the only spices were those used in the preservation of the husks lying stone-dead in their sarcophagi. Well, stone-dead during the day, she ruefully reminded herself. As for gold and silver? She’d found a single knife hilt that had gold inlay, probably enough to fill in one tooth. The journey here had been an utter waste of time.
First things first though – she needed to get food and water before she planned out anything else. Sighing at her somewhat straitened circumstances, she let the rope go from her feet and slithered down the remaining twenty feet to the broken pavement below. The fog had gone and white sunlight beamed through gaps in the ruins, giving them a strange beauty though Jes was hard-pressed to appreciate the vista at the moment. Through the dereliction she jogged, down alleys and ways that had not had living feet walk them in centuries, since before the Downfall when sorcerers and god-kings ruled the world and the universe beyond. Broken and cast down statues to such luminaries lie everywhere; desecrated relics of an erstwhile perilous age, where life for the poor and weak was both brief and cheap. Where the privileged few ruled over millions in tyranny; wizards of power standing at the god-king and queens’ shoulders. All of them evil grey eminences controlling the world through cogent sorcery, subtle deception and coercion. This was the time where the virtually immortal reigned over those whose spans were tragically short.
No more. They were all gone, wizard and minion alike. The Downfall had come and changed the world, and now there was only the Endless Quiet, as the folk of today liked to call this current age.
Endless Quiet? Jes grunted. Somebody needed to tell these walking dead that. Go back to your graves and be the dead things you are, never to rise again. But the fact they did walk the night prickled at the back of Jes’s mind and it was a tacit indication that there was residual sorcery or some other fell enchantment at play here. Something made the dead rise at nightfall.
The Downfall putatively rid the world of most destructive magic and its effects, but Jes knew too well that was far from true, and she knew a few simple spells herself, mainly alarm wards. In her seventy years of life, she had seen and felt many things that had sinister arcane and supernatural origins and the dead here were the latest in a very long line. Hidden somewhere in the twisted corridors, halls and passages of the thousands of manors, palaces, temples and houses in Lu Tarna, Jes felt there was an artefact that animated the dead, spurred them on unnaturally, but she was of no mind to hunt it down, mainly as she had no idea how she would destroy such a thing. Plus, as she thought, she was here for riches, not to right ancient wrongs.
She emerged from the ruined city to the old boulevard that paralleled the canal and to her relief she saw the rippling of water in the morning light. A straggling row of palm trees fringed the boulevard and beyond that ran the narrow canal, now holding about half of its intended capacity. Its greenish water moved sluggishly and the surface was raked with pond scum. Jes edged her way down the old stone brickwork of the canal wall and put a testing hand into the water. It was cool and she tasted it, finding it weedy but palatable. She drank her fill then stripped out of her clothes, liking the touch of the fresh morning air on her bare skin. When was the last time she had bathed? The date was beyond her ability to recall and she gave it no further thought as she immersed herself in the living water. While she had experienced far better baths in her life, she couldn’t complain about this one considering the circumstances, dunking her head and washing months of accumulated dust and dirt from her messy reddish-blonde hair.
After ten minutes of wash and frolic, she emerged from the canal, shaking out her clothes, one eye on her quiet environs. A cool wind blew southward, bringing with it the scent of the desert. Sniffing the air, Jes dressed into her well-worn ochre billowing pants and loose blouse that had served her these last few months. On went her old serviceable boots and the black bandana over her hair. For years, she had worn hardened and boiled leathers but had eschewed them in favour of looser fitting clothes, in light of her frequent need to climb or scurry, and against the various horrors of the Tuyakh deserts, no amount of armour would have sufficed anyway.
Still hungry, she sat on the bank of the canal re-braiding the two long strands of hair that hung in front of both ears, nonplussed with the current state of affairs but holding out some hope that her prospects would improve. Sian Searag was months away to the east, and Jes saw no profit in retreading old ground. Her world was vast, rumoured to have no end, and so she swiftly decided to head west. There would always be new challenges and adversaries, that she could count on.
Then she saw him. He staggered out of the hazy murk to the north, stumbling and half-crawling his way across the plain to the canal. As Jes watched open-mouthed, the newcomer gave a glad cry at the sight of water and tumbled down the steep sides into the weedy canal. He slapped at the water weakly and gobbled great mouthfuls, then he noted Jes watching him. Crying out, he pulled himself up the walls, only to slip back down with a resounding splash.