First chapter back! Act II!
And unfortunately it has come to this... No, I am NOT dropping the book!!! Hahaha... I have to change my release speed due to increased work commitments. Over the past month I have been trying to keep up with 2 chapters a week both here and on Patreon and I have found that in order to do so I am prioritising word count over the quality of the story (considering that my chapters can range up to 3500 words at times) You may notice that some chapters coming up are 'just' making the 2500 words minimum I set for myself. So it is a bit of a shame that I will have to drop back my release speed to 1 chapter a week so I don't burn out (there may be an occasional bonus chapter drop depending on if the planets align 'just right' during the week). This and the next chapter will drop as I have been, but after the next chapter it will drop to once a week on a Saturday.
Sorry in advance! But I would rather keep delivering the story without cutting corners on the way I am telling it! Hahaha... And who knows, maybe once everything settles back in, I might be able to increase the release speed again or trying something else alongside.
Also, if you are interested in hanging out on Discord, here is a link to my VERY empty server if you want to talk book, chat or get notifications on whats happening with the tale (developmentally): https://discord.gg/D4myzepcyc
Chapter 27 - Escorath - (Act II)
~ Three Weeks Earlier ~
The lazy shimmer and haze of the heat off the desert sands and rocky outcroppings warped the landscape as Rhyker squinted against the glare. Midday scorched the sands and every breath. The air was still and languid, its only movement of pervasive warmth off the sands at their feet. They had stopped in the wide and shallow depression among the dunes two days earlier. Their tents set in amongst the smashed remains of pillars that rose like shattered teeth from the sands. Early the night before and by lantern light they had discovered an entrance, a wreckage of ancient stone buried shallow in the sand.
Working throughout the night they had shifted the sand and rubble, exposing the narrow passage and cracked steps that led into the darkness below. After checking the orientation and consulting the maps, Rhuthain confirmed that they stood on what was once was the floor of the raised temple in the courtyard. Its pillars and roof swept free of the floor, the concealed passage behind the shrine providing the only accessible entrance to the structure that lay below without digging through at least fifteen yards of the shifting sands to access the main entry.
They had all retired as false dawn painted the distant horizon. Seeking rest before the descent into the ruins of Escorath, the Sanctum of the sunset copper and the vitreous jade dragons. Rhyker looked across to Kitaraiya, her face hidden behind fabric with only her sharp blue eyes peering out from the depths of the folds. He nodded and gestured to the ruined structure, the pile of rubble and stone that Antrandis, Rhuthain and Silvast had shifted throughout the night. Kitaraiya nodded back to him and came in close.
“Did you tell Father?” he said.
Kit met his eyes, their matching blue mirroring the cloudless sky above, she pulled the cloth away from her face and let it slip to her neck.
“I told him.” she said as she looked out toward the entrance to the ruins, “He said it is of no concern.”
She nodded slowly, “No concern.”
Rhyker raised a brow but did not pursue the thought.
“We still have time… We could… return to our tent.”
Rhyker glanced at her suspiciously.
Kit’s lip twisted at the corner, “Just a little, a taste is all. It will knock the edge off. Just a sip.”
“We might not be…” she said, her eyes on his as he frowned at her choice of words, “I might not get any, I mean, wouldn’t it be better now and not while we are in the ruins? It is the heat, it just…”
“Oi, you two, you ready?” came the gravelly voice from behind.
Kitaraiya turned and sighted the dwarf, his dark brown hair and beard neatly cut short, “Aye, Rhuthain. Coming.”
Rhyker gave her a sidelong glance as he passed while shaking his head. Her eyes lingered on his back as a bent smile graced her lips. She made a few quick steps and walked alongside him, her steps matching his.
“I’m hungry, Rhy.” she said, taking another quick glance at him.
He continued to walk, his sharp blue eyes on the dwarf, “Rhuthain, how was it down there?”
“Dirty.” Rhuthain said, eyeing Kitaraiya, “I mean with this sand an all. From the quick look I did, the upper halls are mostly in one piece.” he stopped, giving Kitaraiya a disapproving look as her hand rested on Rhyker’s shoulder, leaning on him, “It’s not like Scarosant, old or new. There are similarities, but that is all.”
“What do you think?” Rhyker asked, stepping alongside Rhuthain.
“I be thinking its promising, not like the other two. If the upper halls are intact like I saw this morning, then the lower halls and galleries should be in one piece.” he glanced up at Kit again, “Get off him, he’s your brother, not your lover.”
“Am I making you uncomfortable, Rhuthain?”
“Aye, you are. It’s bad enough you have to feed off him, but hanging off a him like he’s your toy gets me knickers in a twist.”
“Bravely said master dwarf! But knickers are for ladies, not surly one’s like you.” Kit said, trying to keep a straight face.
“Exactly. Doesn’t change the fact I…” he stopped, grimacing slightly, “This can go on for days and it won’t change a thing.” he grumbled to himself.
He put two fingers between his lips and let out a shrill whistle, “Are we going into the pit or not? Hurry your asses up, me brains are baking out here!” he yelled gruffly.
Rhyker looked the dwarf up and down, his clothes all of rugged and serviceable cotton weave of earthen tones. A wide leather belt with a number of pouches and a broad bladed dagger at his waist, a harness he would normally wear over his armour criss-crossed his chest and shoulders. On his back, his customary double-headed battle axe was sheathed and buckled down with a pickaxe strapped over the top. Hanging in a holster under one arm was a heavy headed hammer and the other, a sheathed rock pick.
“No armour Thain?” he asked
“We are exploring, boy. Out here, wearing a steel oven won’t do me good. And since when have I needed armour with the likes of you lot around? It’s only good in battle anyways, not exploring the dark.” the dwarf said, glancing at him curiously before meeting Kit’s gaze and her wink.
“Your buckle. Let me.” she said, dropping slowly to a knee and unnecessarily fussing over his boot and the greaves that reached up his shins.
“Aye, thanks. All rigged up it’s a little tricky.” he said, watching Kit re-buckle his boot.
“We are being watched, Uncle. The guide has been acting erratic since the passage was found. Rhy saw him signalling the far dunes with something he kept concealed.”
“Aye, and Snowshadow went for a run ‘fore sun-up, keeping to the shadows, slick-like. Spotted three campfires a number of dunes back while you were sleeping.” he glanced at Rhyker, “Well, at least while the boy was sleeping, you were probably counting his hearbeats.”
Kit laughed, “How did you know?! It is what lulls me to sleep every night.”
“Is it really so bad Thain?” Rhyker said quietly as he looked back toward the tents, his gaze picking out their human guide, “You were with us when everything went from bad to worse.”
“Nay, not at all. She’s alive. It’s that we had no choice that irks me, and for you to shoulder such a responsibility, to your sister an all and at such a young age, I got a heap of respect for you boy, just as long as you two aren’t, you know…getting too familial. ”
Rhyker did not respond, instead looking out past the dunes, his eyes on the sky.
Rhuthain looked at him, “Maybe I went too far, but I worry is all.”
Kit looked up, her eyes narrowed, “Not like the dwarves can talk.”
“Dwarves as a whole, no. Gods girl, they are a dirty bunch, especially in the Darklands. But among me own and the high council it is frowned upon.”
Kit chuckled lightly, tucking the last strap back into its retainer, “Enough. Now, let me get this right, Antrandis is not concerned about the guide?” she asked, rising.
“It’s not like the locals offer much of a challenge, though the sand beasties are interesting in their own ways.”
“So we let ourselves be ambushed?”
Rhuthain chuckled, “Not much of an ambush if we are expecting it, is it girl? They were waiting for the right moment to catch us with our pants down, us being tourists and all. But they now want a look in that hole as much as we do. It might be the last thing they do in this godforsaken place. Depending how determined they are to be cut down of course.”
Rhyker shook his head slowly as a dark smile came to his lips, he knew all too well that being below would put their assailants at a debilitating disadvantage.
“Thain, you think I should leave Hendosphyre in one of the tents as insurance.”
The dwarf looked at him and winked, “No need, she will be staying up here.”
Kit flashed a smile at her brother, watching him shake his head, “They might be better off down the hole with us.”
“Aye girl, at least some of them might have a bloody chance of surviving.” Rhuthain glared against the sun, catching movement on the sands, “Bloody finally.” he said with a shake of his head, “We going down, or are you waiting for me brains to be fried?” he yelled.
“Come, come, little man… It’s not like it is hard, you could have just stood in the shade of one of those two.” said the woman that approached, her silver hair flowing and those platinum eyes glinting in the light as she walked up and patted him on the head.
“Stop grumbling, Rhuthain. It does you no good.”
“Now I got an overgrown lizard patting me head, the indignity.” he shot back.
Silvast laughed, her eyes sparkling while she watched the bristling dwarf, “Antrandis said to go ahead, he and Sian will catch up. They just need to…” she tilted her head in the guide’s direction.
“Tell the humy that we might not be back for supper? Give him his cue for signalling his mates? Aye, got you.” Rhuthain said before he turned and headed off to the excavated entrance to the ruins.
Silvast’s platinum eyes followed the dwarf as he walked off, shaking her head slightly at his exuberance to delve into what was once a home to two of the ancient dragons and a hall of worship to their teachings in distant times. Her eyes narrowed against the glare before they met Kitaraiya’s.
“Thank you.” she quickly glanced to Rhyker, “Both of you.”
“There is no reason to…” Rhyker stopped as Silvast smiled warmly.
“There is.” she gestured for them to follow while she walked in Rhuthain’s footsteps, Kitaraiya and Rhyker falling into step on either side.
“Your arrival eighteen years ago uncovered something remarkable. Your inquisitiveness about your history brought opportunities. It might have taken a number of decades to even connect the fall of the Aletere to what we stand above right now. Somehow, it is all intertwined; you pulled that loose thread from the weave of this tapestry of shadows, enough to see its colour.”
“There is something bigger at work.” Rhyker commented.
“We both have seen Mother’s tomb within the Sanctum, we have both studied it. The great statue of Lumia guarding Sian’s empty coffin. It is not a coincidence. For the Violet and Jade dragons to be involved in Lumia’s death, Sian’s entrapment and the genocide of the Aletere…”
Silvast glanced at Kitaraiya and gave a small nod as they walked around the rubble that now surrounded the entry to the ruins. She led them in, descending the cracked stone stairs, the stale dry air washing up over them as they were swallowed by the darkness. Immediately the temperature started to drop the further down the steps they went until it reached a comfortable and dry warmth.
“It was a simple case of mistaken identity, Sian was never meant to survive.” Silvast said, reducing her volume as they descended further, “The true motivation is still a mystery.”
Silvast glanced back at them in the darkness, her eyes cutting through it like it was day, “The few words that the Violet uttered after mistakenly taking Lumia’s life are not enough to be the cause for her actions.”
“If they are?” Rhyker asked as he slipped his hood back, revealing his face.
Silvast looked at him, her eyes flashing slightly in the gloom that surrounded the base of the stairs, the faint glow from above filtering down on the backs of the swirling dust.
Her silver brows furrowed lightly as she looked from Rhyker to Kitaraiya, “Then there is a much bigger problem at hand.”
“Aye, there is a bigger problem at hand, not an ancient one, maybe.”
Silvast looked over her shoulder, “What would that be, Rhuthain?”
“There is no core in this Sanctum, Sil. No light and everything you lot have shown me in the designs unearthed back at Scarosant. This place isn’t it.”
“The cores are all different. None are like…” she saw Rhuthain’s expression, “Scarosant.”
“Aye, that I know. I have seen the two you and Antrandis retrieved from the wreckage of both Imaldren and Rensleth. Small versions of that monster back at Scarosant that your father made.”
Silvast stared at him, “Different? But, we didn’t have the designs of Escorath, nor Dagnetheln.”
“You were speculating then. Well, these two were, an Arla to boot.” he said.
Kitaraiya glanced at him, “Why are you worried about light, Uncle? None of us need it.”
Rhyker smiled and shared a look with Rhuthain, “Appreciation.”
“Aye boy, I need the light. The pit is ringed with columns that go all the way down. And the carvings. They’re just, incredible.” said Rhuthain, rubbing his hands excitedly, “You can’t see work of colours and art without light, can you?” he glanced at Silvast, eyeing her, “Well, maybe you can.”
Silvast shook her head, quickly looking back in the direction he came from, “Columns all the way down?”
Rhuthain nodded enthusiastically.
“You can see all the way to the bottom?”
“The ceiling is in one piece?” she asked, surprise in her voice as Rhuthain nodded.
“There is a little sand here and there. Must’ve got through the cracks. That ceiling of interlocked moving plates of stone, its art, gives me shivers just looking at it.”
“I don’t know what concerns me more, Rhuthain swooning over stonework or Silvast not being concerned about the missing core.” Kitaraiya whispered into Rhyker’s ear.
“The core is of no use to anyone apart from a dragon. If it is missing I can find it through other means. Regardless, its power would be depleted since it is away from the Sanctum. I just hope the locals didn’t find it and cut it up in their ignorance.”
“Sil, tell me you brought one.” Rhuthain said hungrily.
She shook her head and slipped a pouch out of a pocket, “A shard. Enough to breathe life back into this place for a few weeks without my presence.”
“That’s me girl.”
Silvast looked at him shrewdly as she let the pouch dangle from its strings, “Eighteen cases of your finest.”
Rhuthain’s eyes narrowed, “Twelve, and you get them yourself.”
“Fourteen, your people can pick em up.”
“I’ll let you carry this all the way down and let you do the honours.” said Silvast with narrowing eyes.
Rhuthain laughed suddenly, “Done! Sixteen cases delivered by yours truly, middle of bloody winter if I have to!”
She nodded and dropped the pouch into his eager hands with a victorious grin.
Kit stared at them both in disbelief, “Did you just barter fire-whiskey in exchange for carrying a…”
“Aye! Worth every bottle!” Rhuthain said as he peered carefully into the pouch.
Silvast looked at Kitaraiya, “Kit, treasure comes in all forms, and even fleeting, its worth can’t be measured. It took me a long time to recognise that.” she said, her eyes slipping past Kit and to the flicker of movement on the stairs as Antrandis came into sight.
She smiled, her eyes resting on him and catching Sian as she followed close behind, “A very long time.”