(Go back to Part 20)
They found one that night.
It wandered in from the desert, attracted by the sound of the camp. It was old, and its body had been dried and shriveled by the arid environment. Bare bones protruded from its knees, its ribcage, and parts of its face. Its eyes had long since dried to empty sockets, and its hands were splintered wrecks of dangling bone and tendon. It couldn’t moan, only gasp like a broken whistle through the empty cave that had been its chest.
One of the captain’s men killed it, and they burned the remains.
A few days later the guides came along the column to spread a warning.
“The captain says we have to pass through some ruins. It is a cursed town, built by the Ancients—we can travel through, but don’t take anything. Anyone who takes something from the town sickens and dies.” Mumbling and furtive looks passed between the travelers, but they pressed on.
“Is there really a curse?” asked Alex later. “Dark magic?”
“There is no magic,” said McCann, “dark or otherwise. Anyone who tells you different is a superstitious fool. There are weapons used by the Ancients against the Plague, though, and they are a thousand times more dangerous. This is probably one of their poisons; do as the guides say.”
The town appeared the next day, a cluster of low buildings on the horizon. As they grew closer, a ribbon of cracked asphalt emerged from the desert like a subterranean river. They followed the patchy road toward town.
The skeletons of houses began to appear on either side of the road. Most were wrecked, but a few still had one or two walls intact. Alex wondered at the splintered wooden timbers jutting from the sand like shattered ribs; she hadn’t seen a living tree for weeks. A rusted metal swingset stood behind one house; near another, the posts from a chain link fence traced a small square. Nothing grew here, not even the usual prickly shrubs or tumbleweeds.
The buildings got closer together. The road twisted down and crossed a bridge over what had been a river—now the underside ran only a few inches above the sand. The green paint on the steel girders was nearly gone, leaving a dull pitted surface exposed to the wind. It reminded Alex of the ruins outside of Goodhollow.
After the bridge they met a crossroads that marked the center of town. A few brick and cement buildings stood here, roofless. Gaping windows revealed interiors filled with twisted debris and drifting sand. Half of a sign hung from one, but it was in the old language and had many letters missing. Alex could make no sense of it.
“They’re not usually so well preserved,” said McCann, breaking the silence that had fallen over the rest of the caravan. “The dry air and the poison have kept this one in good shape.”
“What happened to the people?”
The road wound up and away from the town center. Gradually the buildings grew less numerous before disappearing altogether. When they reached the ridge line, the asphalt road ceased abruptly, as if it had been cut by the same knife that shaped the ridge.
“Here,” said the captain, halting the caravan. “See the dangers we have skirted by passing through this place?”
The town and the path they’d followed lay in a shallow valley that had blocked their vision all day, but from the ridge they could see for miles in either direction. The land on either side of the valley was flattened intodiscs of mottled green and black that stretched out to the horizon.
“What are those?” asked Alex.
“That’s where the weapons of the Ancients turned the earth into glass. The curse is stronger there,” said the captain.
“So we slipped between them?”
“Yes. But we must keep moving.”
Most of the caravan woke feeling ill the next morning. McCann said little except to instruct Alex on a new tonic to mitigate the effects of the curse. It helped calm her stomach and ease the ache in her joints; she gave it to a few of those around them as well.
By the end of the next day the effects of the curse wore off. Everyone recovered except for a small party of merchants from the South who had expressed skepticism about dark magic. They worsened as the week went on; eventually they died, one by one. Before the end, the last of them admitted to stealing a small metal memento from the town. They’d cast it away a few days after taking it when the sickness persisted, but by then it was too late. He died that evening, spitting blood and crying weakly for his daughter.
One day Alex spotted what looked like a low wall in the distance, broken in places but making one large curve across the landscape. When they finally reached it, it was two double rows of skeletal automobile frames buried deep in the sand. Only a foot or two of pitted aluminum showed above the surface, dull roofs held above the sand by arched columns.
“What is it?” asked Alex.
“A road. Or that’s what the librarians say,” added McCann.
“It doesn’t look like a road. How would they use it?”
McCann shrugged. This was his answer to many of her questions in the desert. No one took any souvenirs this time.
A few days later they passed a city. The chief skirted it, giving the place a wide berth. Alex stared at it for most of the day—the massive gray towers, shattered by incalculable forces, rose in silent anger toward the sky and flickered as bits of shattered glass caught the sun. It was a hundred times larger than Dunheim.
She asked an Anglic-speaking guide about it that evening.
“Yes, I’ve been to the city,” said the guide.
“You have? What’s it like?”
The guide thought for a minute. “Imagine a huge canyon, except instead of rock walls you have buildings and rubble around you everywhere in a giant maze. Inside each building is another maze, mostly pitch black unless a wall or ceiling has been knocked in. There are a million ways to get lost, and that’s not even counting the tunnels underneath.”
“Yes, between the buildings, under the streets, everywhere. Layers and layers of them—some big enough to ride four horses abreast, others so small you have to crawl on your stomach. All of it filled with danger.”
“The Plague?” she asked.
“Yes, and other things.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Relic hunting, of course.”
“Did you find any?” asked Alex.
“Did we find any! The city’s full of them. You could spend a lifetime on one city block and not clear it out. No one will ever strip the city dry,” claimed the guide.
“Why did you stop?”
The guide grinned. “It’s dangerous work—too dangerous, according to my wife. There’s the Plague, and then there’s the traps that the Ancients left behind. And the city has residents, too–”
“People live there?!?” Alex was incredulous, but the guide nodded.
“The city makes you crazy. The longer you stay, the crazier you get . . . every once in a while someone loses it and decides to stay for good. They usually live alone, high up in the towers, and are very territorial. They’re dangerous—they know more about the Ancients than anybody—and when you’ve been there that long, you can find enough water and food so long as you don’t mind eating bugs.”
It took about three weeks to reach the oasis. When Alex finally saw green on the horizon she felt like she’d forgotten what living things looked like. It stretched larger and larger across their vision as the day went on. Finally around dusk they crested a low rise and descended into the oasis.
It was bigger than Alex had imagined—more than a hundred wells dotted the area—and countless torches lit the area around them. Tents were anchored under the swaying palms in every direction, a rich tapestry of colors and shapes. People found their voices again as the caravan broke for the night, laughing and talking in the cool air as the desert’s spell of silence shattered around them. Soon they were welcomed into tents and around campfires, and the inhabitants of the oasis ran a roaring trade in roast lamb and chicken.
Brutus and the donkeys took a long drink from the well beside Alex. She swallowed in slow, deep gulps, drinking freely for the first time since entering the desert. Alex’s whole body felt like it had withered during the past three weeks, leaving her as stiff and tough as the dried beef they’d been surviving on. Only after a long drink did she feel hungry again.
She wandered over to one of the campfires. The locals had a lamb on a spit over the fire, simply marinated with pepper and garlic. Alex haggled for a piece with crude sign language; a few coins later, she held a thick strip of flesh in her hands. It burned her fingers and tongue but she ate it anyway, fat crackling in her mouth and juice dripping down her chin.
It was another week in the desert from the oasis to Al Fayd. The night before they were due to arrive, Alex wandered off to the edge of the camp.
McCann joined her after a few minutes. “Do you smell that? The air’s different,” asked Alex without turning.
“It’s the ocean.”
Alex took a deep breath and let it out again. “Does the sand reach all the way to the ocean?”
“Aye.” McCann nodded. “Al Fayd is a day inland. The river is wide and slow there—it will take a day to reach the open water once we set sail.”
Alex tried to imagine it. “I’ve never seen the ocean before.”
“You’ll get a good look at it soon enough. If the weather holds, it’s two weeks from Al Fayd to Antioch.”
“Antioch.” Alex thought of the Grand Master, and of Dalia.
(Go on to Part 22)