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Chapter 39: Forgotten Chambers

The courier came scampering so quickly to Janus's door he did not notice the tanned fellow sitting under a tree branch to his left. The courier knocked rapidly. Janus smiled. Part of his success had always been his ability to blend into his surroundings when he needed to. Janus watched as the maid opened the door, heard the courier's query and nodded in Janus's direction. The door closed on the warm sun and the courier headed toward the shadows where Janus was seated.

"Janus, sir?" Janus nodded in reply, his weathered face belying nothing. "I have a message for you from Tymbal of the Spragni. He seemed to think it was most urgent."

Janus's eyes lit up. "Well? What news do you bring?"

"Something fell from the sky. It landed in the desert not far from the Sigai Oasis. He believes it's what you've been looking for."

Janus's heart beat faster. "How long ago did this happen?"

"Yestermorn. Shall I return a message?"

Janus rose through the dappled shadows and looked the courier in the eye. "Make all speed back to my good friend, Tymbal. Tell him that I shall join him as soon as possible. If he can keep the curious at bay until my arrival, I shall be most pleased. And I shall express my gratitude upon my arrival. Understood?" The courier bowed his head. Janus placed a coin in the courier's hand and the courier ran off from whence he had come.

Janus planned to be away for some time, so he quickly set his affairs in order. He arranged for his business interests to be handled by his partners. His instructions implied the current trip was of no great importance. It was not unusual for him to be away from home on short notice so they would suspect nothing. He asked his servant Malik to join him on the expedition. He gave him a list of supplies they'd need for exploration and trade, as well as defense, and a list of the men he wanted to join them. After Malik departed, Janus packed his bag with survival gear, a gift for Tymbal and trade goods that might interest men from the stars. He contemplated meeting men who sailed the stars! Janus spoke a brief prayer of gratitude, then touched his forehead and completed his preparations.

Janus awoke before dawn while the air was still cool. The first star was brilliantly visible on the horizon. Daylight would soon be upon them. Already the contrast between his compound under the palms and the edges of the sand dunes grew more distinct.

Janus's home was separated from the Sigai by a small dune sea bordered by a series of ridges and plateaus that became the Siganna Mountains, an area of fertile landscapes and valleys. The journey to the Sigai was not topographically difficult, but the predators that lived in the area made the journey dangerous. Travel through the dune sea risked encounters with Sand Sikalas. Travel along the ridges risked aggravating the mating of the Zinhala. Normally docile, they were fierce opponents when they were in heat.

Janus eyed his company and their mounted leviathans while he mulled his decision. It would be difficult to avoid encountering the Zinhala on the ridge. Therefore, he settled on a journey through the dune sea. With luck, the journey would be Sikala free.

The last minute preparations were soon completed and it was time to move. With a long look at his home, Janus began the journey that he'd been dreaming of his whole life. The scouts moved out front. Janus and his men followed. As they entered the dunes, he heard occasional blood-curdling screams coming from the ridges. "Sounds like the Zinhala are successfully mating this year," Zofun said, looking grim. Janus was glad they had avoided the ridge. It sounded like the Zinhala were in the height of their heat.

The dunes seemed to stretch forever. Ironically, any sign of grass or a tree gave cause for alarm, not relief. The Sikala used such lures on unsuspecting travelers. Janus moved to the rear to check the supplies and make his presence known. Most people got jittery in the dune sea, and the screams of the Zinhala didn't help. His leadership helped to calm the nerves of the caravan.

Janus's stride was that of a man in his element. His gaze touched everything, including the eyes of his people. His slight smile, his nod of recognition or approval carried his meaning, "We are a unit, we move as a team and we are the best at what we do." They all knew Janus was fair and even handed. None felt neglected or inferior. This gave Janus a feeling of peace. Everything was as it should be. For a few minutes at a time, he entirely forgot the ultimate goal of his expedition, but the journey was easy and his discursive mind persistently ticked through imagined possibilities. He was tracking down his life's goal. He hoped it would make him wealthy, besides.

The caravan settled into the shade of a high cluster of dunes to rest the leviathans. The dunes provided shelter from the high winds that so often plagued the desert sands, as well as some cover from possible predators. Janus lay on his mat beneath his tent and briefly napped.

He awoke some time later with a start. He sat upright and listened intently, adrenaline pouring through his system. A shadow approached his tent, a shadow without a hat. All his guards wore traditional hats so as to blend with the landscape more fully. Janus checked to make certain his blade was still snug in his boot and emerged from the tent. A member of his caravan from the Spragni clan approached. His hat had fallen carelessly down his back where straps held it in place. Janus relaxed. "What is it, brother?"

"Monster storm come, like death!" The Spragni pointed to the south and west. Janus took his binoculars from his pack and ran to the dune crest above their camp. The mountain peak above Sigai was just barely visible on the horizon. Above it, bruised and sullen storm clouds threatened to consume the Sigai. Internal electrical discharges made the clouds boil and shine an eerie green color. Unless the winds changed, the storm would be on them in a few hours. They'd never make it to the Sigai valley before the storm hit, not even if they left everything and rode light. They were too far to turn back and they wouldn't survive in the open desert, they'd be burned alive!

Janus cursed his luck. He scanned the horizon. He spotted a rocky outcropping in the middle of the dunes to the west. It looked large enough to secure a grounding rod to.

Janus and his men hastily packed camp and headed west. The dunes were unnaturally quiet. Even the distant Zinhala were silent. The caravan arrived at the foot of the tall rocks in just over an hour. As they neared them, Janus began to see their regular shape. These were not works of nature. They were buildings: towers, domes and unnatural constructions that Janus did not recognize.

Janus dismounted and took a rod and hammer from his pack. He climbed up a tower that stood a little taller than the dune engulfing it. He hammered the metal rod between two stones, attached a coil of wire to the rod and climbed back down with it. He showed his men where to dig a hole. In very little time, Janus and his men had dug it deep. Janus returned to his pack and removed a grounder: a large, metal box filled with wire and salt. He placed the box at the bottom of the hole, connected it to the wire from the rod and covered it with sand. In minutes the men had filled the hole.

"Let's get our bags into the ruin," Janus yelled over the wind that had picked up. Malik nodded and ran off to convey the orders to the others while Janus removed his saddle and bags. He hauled them into the ruins, dropped them inside and ran back to secure the rest of their gear.

Malik was still talking to the others. Janus could tell there was trouble. Malik turned to him as he approached. "They don't want to go in!"

"If they don't, they'll be killed!"

"They said they'd rather face the storm than what's in those ruins."

Janus closed his eyes and shook his head, but his hesitation lasted only a second. He spoke to the crowd of men. "Who's coming with me?" Malik and one other member of Janus's Rota clan, Devon, stepped forward. None of the Spragni did. "Bring us two of the spare water bladders, two bags of jerky and two sand shelters," he ordered. The men rummaged through their packs like their lives depended on it. After they handed the items to Janus and his men, he said, "You and your mounts are free to leave. Galt be with you." The Spragnis, and a few Rota, mounted up and rode further north in search of safer shelter.

Janus and his men gathered their gear in the mouth of the ruined building. It wasn't a very large space. A narrow stairway led into a darkened passage below. Only one of their mounted leviathans could fit into the outer chamber. Janus ordered Malik and Devon to take one of the leviathans inside while he removed the saddles from the others and freed them. The freed leviathans headed east as fast as they could.

Janus returned to the ruins. Inside, Devon was feeding the leviathan oats mixed with an herbal medicine to sedate the animal. Malik was preparing a saddle to cover the opening through which they had entered. Janus helped Malik push the saddle in front of the doorway to keep out the wind and sand. Within minutes, the leviathan was asleep. The men and their gear were safe and secure for the time being.

Janus led the men in a prayer of thanksgiving then was silent. Outside, the wind howled. Sand blew in over the corners of the saddle. Janus was reasonably certain the structure would withstand the storm. It had stood for longer than his people had lived in the land and had probably withstood many such storms.

The walls of the chamber they were in were sandblasted and featureless. The dark stairway waited like an unspoken question. Janus ordered the others to stay with the leviathan and took some candles and a tinderbox from his pack. He lit a candle and cautiously made his way downstairs.

Piles of sand slowly formed around the saddle as it kept the wind from their shelter. Time passed and the inside of the tower grew unnaturally dark. The men lit candles. The piles of sand were nearly a meter tall when at last they saw Janus ascend the stairway. He checked the entrance. It was still secure, and the leviathan was sleeping soundly. Pleased with what he saw, Janus removed a backpack from his heavy saddlebags. He paused for a moment and glanced at Malik and Devon. "Anyone afraid of demons?" he asked quietly.

"No way!" Devon replied.

"If we were, we wouldn't have come in here," Malik said calmly.

"You should be afraid," Janus warned them, "but not paralyzed. We can leave the leviathan alone for a while. Come downstairs if you wish." Janus led the way. The men followed.

The stairs were regular and steep. Long metal cylinders ran along the ceiling. They descended several meters. At the bottom, the stairs bisected a narrow passageway sealed at both ends by makeshift, masonry walls. The corridor seemed to have been walled up. Another corridor branched off into a long, narrow room.

Inside the room, a pathway led between two ledges, each a half-meter high and a meter wide. The walls showed signs of having once been decorated with frescoes, but they were obliterated and gouged beyond all recognition.

As they marveled at the silent ruins, a curious creature observed them. It was no larger than a human hand and had a long, skinny face and limbs. It carried several scrawny roots in its mouth and several more underneath one of its arms. It stood up tall on its hind legs to get a better view of the strangers. As Janus and his men approached, it ran off on three legs, clutching its precious roots with its fourth, and crawled down a drain in the floor.

The four men walked between the broad ledges to an open space where they found two pedestals. The furthest pedestal was the size of a man but only a few dozen centimeters tall. Sharp metal bars stuck out at odd angles from its top. The closer pedestal was smaller and taller, but shattered into several pieces of featureless rock. At the back of the room was a doorway through which a delta of sand had poured.

Janus set his backpack on the ledge and scrutinized the wall behind the pedestals. Portions of the stone wall had fallen away from a large crack, revealing a rusted metal surface. Janus took a small piece of wood, a piece of cloth and a hammer from his pack. He wrapped the cloth around the wood and placed it on the wall above the metal surface. He put his ear to the wall and gently tapped the wood with his hammer. He distinctly heard something moving inside the wall. Janus put the wood and cloth back in his bag, removed a chisel and began to excavate.

Malik searched the room and discovered little more than scraps of metal and tantalizing clues of the wall's former decorations. He found flecks of paint, rich purples, blues and vibrant greens. Alas, there was too little left to determine the scenes or patterns they had once depicted. Devon dug through the sand that had poured through the doorway. More sand was all he found. He suspected the roof beyond had caved in.

Janus carefully removed the rocky material from around the flat, metal surface. He soon discovered its perimeter. It was perfectly rectangular, about a half-meter tall on its longest side. Janus continued scraping away the material around it. Devon lit new candles as the old ones burned out. At last, Janus found the back end of the metal surface. A little more work and he was able to pull it away from the wall.

Janus looked at it. He was convinced it was a box. It had hinges. They went upstairs together with the relic.

Janus looked for a way to open it. The box was rusted shut, but he managed to pry an end up. He worked carefully, for fear of damaging the contents. When he managed to open it a portion of the way, the lid snapped off above the hinges. Janus held the lid and his breath as he and his men looked inside.

The box was filled with a dark fibrous mass. It tore into dusty pieces under Janus's fingers. Beneath was a large red, carved stone. Janus lifted the stone from the case. It depicted a humanoid sitting with a bright green jewel in its lap. Its face was flat and featureless. It held its arms in front of it as if holding something invisible. Strange glyphs surrounded the figure. Never before had Janus seen anything like it. He lightly brushed the fibrous dust from the stone. The vivid colors glowed with an internal light centered on the figure's chest and the jewel in its lap.

Janus placed the stone on the floor in front of him and searched the box. There was one other item inside, a white cylinder with unusual markings on one end. He tried to open the device, but there were no buttons, levers or seams.

Having consumed nearly a dozen candles, Janus decided to take a break from the puzzle. The men blew out their candles and lay down to rest. Outside, the afrimus storm howled, punctuated by the periodic sound of lightning striking the grounding rod.

The men slept for several hours. When they awoke, the only light in the room was the dull red glow that emanated from the unusual stone. The air was quiet and stale. The leviathan was still asleep.

They roused themselves quickly and removed the saddle from the entrance. Sand had covered their exit. They dug the sand away and shoveled it down the stairs. After several minutes, a cool breeze blew down on them. By the time they had cleared a path, the leviathan had begun to stir.

Janus careful packed his findings (including the rusted, metal box) in his bag and helped the men move the leviathan outside.

Night had fallen. Janus listened carefully for several minutes. He called the names of the men who had run off, then listened again. There was no answer. The four men packed their bags. They all climbed on the leviathan and set off north and west looking for their companions.

There was no sign of them. Even the tops of the ruins they had discovered were buried beneath the dunes. The desert had erased all evidence of them. Sadly, the men turned south and headed for their destination.

Janus, Malik and Devon rode through the night and avoided the Sand Sikalas. They reached the mountains as the sky grew brighter. They crossed the narrow mountain pass and reached the Sigai Oasis as the sun rose over the Siganna Mountains. The people of the Sigai should have been starting the day's business at that hour, but the village streets were strangely empty. The houses were still shuttered. Not a single hearth fire burned. Only a single plume of smoke rose from the center of the village.

Janus and his men rode toward the plume of smoke. It rose from an enormous pile of metal the size of a leviathan. Fire had turned the metal surface an ashen-gray. A shattered glass canopy covered the center. A large man's burnt body sat inside.

Janus looked closer at the man and recoiled in horror. The man looked like he was made entirely of metal! His unnatural limbs still clutched the charred levers before him.

Janus and his men stood bewildered, trying to understand what they saw. A door opened and a man came running toward them. It was Tymbal. "You made it! I couldn't sleep last night. I worried I had sent you to death!"

"We found refuge from the storm," Janus reassured his friend. "There are ruins in the desert."


"Yes, but first, tell me where is everyone? Did this fall from the sky?" Janus asked, pointing at the smoking wreckage.

"Well, yes but... no. Come inside. I will explain everything."

Janus asked his men to rest the leviathan. He took his bag from the saddle and walked with his friend to Tymbal's home. It was still shuttered and dark. A candle burned on the table. Janus set his bag next to the candle and removed the relics he had found. "I found this metal box concealed in the wall of a chamber buried deep beneath the sands. Inside I found this cylinder and stone."

Tymbal took the items from Janus. He marveled at the strange symbols on the otherwise featureless, white cylinder and the glyphs and figure carved into the stone. The stone still glowed with the same inner radiance Janus had noticed the night before.

"Do you have a place to keep these safe?" Janus asked.

"Yes, of course."

"Then please, take them."

"Their value is way too great, I can't take them from you."

"No, please. I can't take them either. I don't want Galt's men to stop me with them in my possession." Janus was also glad to have some gifts to give his friend in return for his news. The gifts he had brought with him had been lost in the storm.

"Then I will keep them here for you."

"Thank you. Now tell me, what happened here."

"For several days we've seen things falling from the sky. They fall slowly, silently. They hang from a canopy of material I've never seen before." Tymbal went to his desk and opened a drawer. He removed a folded piece of cloth and handed it to Janus. Janus examined the fabric, but didn't recognize it.

"Amazing! You found one of these falling things?"

"Yes, two. They were smaller than that thing outside. They had a door and seats inside that fit a man, and I found these," Tymbal said mysteriously. He moved the candle and pushed the table away. He pulled up a piece of the floor and revealed a safe. Tymbal removed two small, yellow boxes from beneath the floor. He gave them to Janus to examine.

Each box was made of metal and had a handle. One side had several tiny holes. "What are they?"

"I hoped you could tell me. I couldn't open them."

"Did you find the men who fell in these things?"

"They were unoccupied. The tracks from one disappeared. I followed the other to a Sand Sikala. I imagine he was killed and eaten. The rest will show up eventually. Yesterday around noon, a larger object fell. It fell faster and was way louder. Horatio and his students went to find it yesterday and haven't come back. Then last night that metal thing outside came. It made a horrible noise. The men of the village attacked it and brought it down. It burned for most of the night."

"It flew?" Tymbal nodded. "What was inside that thing? It looked like a person made of metal."

"It was made of metal. I have no idea what it is. I've never seen anything like it."

"Me neither."

"Shortly after the men destroyed that metal thing, we heard thunder in the dunes. We saw fire in the sky. The fire went up very high and came down again. This morn, everyone in the village went into the desert to kill the demon that ate Horatio. Their victory over that metal man last night has strengthened their cowardly spirits."

"If this thing is a demon, the villagers are in grave danger. But I'm more worried about what could happen if it's not. If Horatio got there first, everyone in the Siganna Mountains could be in danger. We must reach it before Horatio takes it straight to Eden."

Tymbal agreed. He stowed the relics Janus had given him and the two yellow metal boxes beneath the floor and concealed them again. They left Tymbal's house and returned to Malik, Devon and the leviathan. Tymbal pointed the way south into the dunes. Everyone climbed onto the leviathan's back and the beast took them into the desert.

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