sleeping fury chapter 7:
where giants slumber
by
xiangjun zeng

For the previous episodes in this saga see A Distant Sun.

The Longtail and his companions find themselves marooned in an ancient derelict city. With Gor, and Dasher their new companion, unable to fend for themselves, the Longtail must chart a course through the dead city to the next step on their journey, while trying to answer the question of his father's purpose here…

1.

 

    The Skybridge raced through the sky, pulling further and further away from the Red Desert. The endless red sands, stretching from horizon to horizon, receded as mountains and canyons became distant, before they too faded into mere dots. The vista curved as the Skybridge reached into heavens, turning into a ball floating amidst the endless dark of the celestial sea. It was a sight that the Longtail never got tired of. He could not spare any attention for that now however.

    Chaos reigned in the Skybridge chamber. The nameless villager was in dire straits. The small chamber was painted red with his blood, spurting from his severed limb, his pain-choked screams reverberating through the chamber, hammering into the Longtail's ears like spikes. He could feel his chest constrict as his heart-beat rose with the screaming. The Old Gods take him, but it was hard to think. He hated loud noises!

    He forced the pounding in his head away, and tried to focus through the anxiety clouding his mind and the screaming clawing that clawed at him. He had to try to stop the bleeding. All the blood was just too much. The Longtail took out his belt and tried to find a good spot to tie a tourniquet. The screaming cut off with an abrupt gargle. The pain and blood loss had overwhelmed the villager and he had fainted. The Longtail sighed in relief at the blessed silence. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could have dealt with the noise. He tied his belt above the villager’s knee, hoping it would be enough to stop the bleeding.

    There was blood everywhere. It was splattered across the walls and on him... He hadn’t known a body could hold that much blood, much less a body as thin as this wretch. He could not find a clean piece of cloth anywhere, so he tore off the sleeve from the villager’s threadbare rag of a tunic and bound the wound with it. The blood slowed as the pressure from the tourniquet exerted itself. He might still die in the end, but for now the villager had a brief lease on life. 

    The Longtail sat back with a sigh. He was troubled. With two invalids, one a cripple and another sick with dream fever from datang, and diminishing supplies, he wasn't sure how far they could travel in an alien landscape that he knew little about. It would take Gor days to flush the datang from his system and recover, and the villager wouldn’t walk again. They would have to find a place to hole up for a while, to heal. At least until the Elder's lackey, Gor, could walk on his own.

   The Longtail looked out into the ocean of darkness from the safety of the Skybridge chamber, and the pin pricks of light scattered across. Stars, his father had called them. Suns so distant that they were nothing but spots of light in the sky. He tried to see if he could catch a glimpse of the world that the Skybridge was bringing them to.

   He had only been to that world, Earth, once, and it was not that long ago either. He was tracking his father to the cave of the Crystal Flowers at the time. It felt like a distant memory now. Earth was a much different place from the Red Desert. The terrain was varied, stretches of land full of trees giving way to huge bodies of water, a sight unseen in any of the other worlds he had been to. Not even the Steaming Jungle had such diversity. The constant change in landscape and life dizzied him when he was there last. It was hard to read the land, and to understand it was an even greater challenge. 

   Then there had been the ruins. Half shrouded shapes of tall, broken structures. Taller than anything he had ever seen and wrought into impossible shapes that should have overbalanced and fell, and yet they still stood, the last defiant remnants of some ancient tribe, covered by wildlife that sought to wrestle back their dominance.

    Cloaked in mystery, the ruins had stirred a strong sense of dread within him. The Longtail had spied many of those structures from afar, on his way to the temple that housed the Skybridge that took him to the Crystal Cave. Instinct had warned him against disturbing those far off mausoleums, and he had steered clear of them.

    Shaking off the trepidation sitting at the back of his mind, he checked up on the pulse of the unconscious villager and Gor. The thought of traveling with so many disturbed him. Traveling with Gor had been difficult enough, and now they had another. His hands went up to touch his scarred throat at the thought of the long awkward silences to come. There was nothing he could say to them, in the most literal sense. And yet, he couldn't just leave them to die.

    Could he...? He pushed that thought away. At the very least he needed Gor. Only he knew what the Elder wanted, and finding his father depended on that.

    Rummaging through the saddlebags, he tried to distract himself by looking for something that he could cauterize the villager’s leg with. Leaving the wound open like that would not be a good idea. Things rotted quick in the place they were going to. He had seen carcasses decompose while he was there. The Red Desert devoured bodies, without mercy, but it was nothing like the wet, putrid festering that could happen in that strange world.

     The Longtail didn’t like the look of their inventory. He only had a handful of the heat stones left, no water, and was almost out of rations. He would have to start a fire first thing, with the heat stones, but they would have to be careful with how they used them. He had no idea how much longer this journey would last. The blue-green world had plentiful water at least, drinkable after boiling. The inspection had not turned out anything he could cauterise the wound with. 

     The Longtail sat back. There was nothing he could do but wait. Wait, for the Skybridge to deliver them to their...to Varn’s….destination and hope for the best.

 

2.

    Hours had passed. The Skybridge arced through the inky expanse between the stars bringing them closer towards the blue-green world. Gleaming like a sapphire, the deep blue color of the world his father had called Earth was broken by wispy white clouds that drifted and danced across its surface. As it entered the atmosphere, the Skybridge swept past the swirling clouds, hurtling through a cerulean sky every bit as pure as the water. The Aetheric Tether pulled the Skybridge along, drawing it towards a landmass dotted with green.

     The land beneath them grew bigger. Now the Longtail could make out white peaked mountains, then patches of green that became clusters of trees. Peeking through the trees, he could make out the remnants of a sprawling ruin, filled with the impossible buildings he had seen shrouded by distance the last time he walked these lands. He rubbed his hands, nervous about where they were headed. He had hoped that they could avoid the ancient cities.

     The Skybridge slowed its descent, drifting to a stop on a large, raised platform. The platform was made from solid stonework of incredible craftsmanship, although broken in places where time and the elements had weathered it. The Aetheric Tether pulsed, then with a final flare, faded away as it released the Skybridge chamber. The doors opened, and the Longtail stepped out.

     Hazy with an amber glow, the late afternoon sun caressed his cheeks as the Longtail stood under the open sky. He could never get used to how many colors there were in this world. Moisture clung to his fur, making it heavy. The air here was chill and damp, much wetter than on the Red Desert. He took stock of his surroundings.

     Tall, imposing edifices surrounded him. The Longtail shivered, and not from the cold. Standing in the midst of these immense structures, he felt like a gnat beside giants. Shadowed pockets, once windows, stare at him like the many eyes of a baleful creature. The hair on his back rose. He could not fathom the reasons for these buildings, nor the might it took to construct them. The weight of time hung heavy upon this place.

   Spreading out from the platform were roads, fanning out like arteries that reached into the depths of the ruins. This place was huge, the scale unimaginable. His view was blocked by the buildings in front of him, but he could see hints of more deep within. Just the area around the Skybridge alone was almost as big as Red City itself.

   It was quiet here, too quiet. Aside from the calls of small insects and the wind rustling through the plant life that had invaded the ruins, there were almost no other sounds. It was as if the time-forgotten city held its breath. The not-quite silence did nothing to ease the disquiet that the Longtail felt.

   And the plant life. In his first visit in this world, he had seen plenty of odd, dangerous plants 

on his way to the derelict Skybridge temple, but here in this ruined city, he felt as if he was standing on a Pillar Tree in the Steaming Jungle. Giant roots had wormed its way into the city, burrowing through the city grounds like webs, crawling into the colossal buildings. Great leafy boughs broke past the buildings’ walls, like beseeching hands seeking the sun. The scene before him was a struggle for dominance, one which the plant life was winning.

    The city, which must have stood derelict for hundreds of years at least, had seen other visitors. Stacked about the Skybridge were caskets and jars wrapped in tough, waterproof leather. The containers were earthenware, familiar claywork from the Red Desert. On the southern side of the platform, where one of the giant roots had broken into the platform, there was even a rope lift. It was quite elaborate; a pulley system for lowering and lifting. It was a good omen, and the Longtail’s spirits soared upon finding all these. Someone was here, and whoever it was - he hoped it was Varn, who seemed to have planned for the long haul.

    Survival must still come first. Forcing his stiff and aching body to move, the Longtail limped over to the claywares to inspect them. He ran his hands across the leather wrapping, pulling at it. No good. It was too secure, and the leather too tough for him to tear without a lot of time and some sharp tools.

   Right now, he had to find shelter. He would have to return for the containers later. They were too exposed, and the poor villager would not last much longer if his grievous wound was not treated somehow. Going back into the Skybridge chamber, he bent and lifted the villager on his back. At least he did not weigh much, thin as he was from years of datang abuse. Gor was much different. The thug was heavy, and after the ordeal they went through to get here, the Longtail could only manage enough strength to drag him to the rope pulley.

   He worked as fast as he could. The golden afternoon sun was turning dark, and night was falling. Unlike the Red Desert, in this world, the night offered no succor, and he was unfamiliar with the land. The Longtail tied the rope pulley around the other two and lowered them. The weight of both strained the pulley, tugging at the securing pin in a worrisome manner.

   The pulley held. When he felt the two males hit the ground several meters below, the Longtail let out a sigh of relief. Grabbing the rope, he shimmied down onto pavement. The material was stone, like the platform, and quite solid. Hard as it was however, it was no match for the giant root that had burst out from the ground towards the platform they had descended from, forming a wall behind them that cut them off. The pavement, riddled with cracks and piles of debris, ran alongside rows of those impossible buildings.

   With the section at the back blocked off by the roots, and both sides a mess of debris, the only way they could go was a small path that snaked forward. The Longtail took a deep breath. Now that adrenaline had left his body, he felt every bruise in his body, the swelling of his feet and the blisters. The day was not yet over however, and they needed to find shelter. There was nothing else but to follow the path ahead and hope it led to somewhere safe.

   What followed was exhausting. The Longtail could not leave the two unconscious males unattended. Who knew what manner of creatures stalked this place, and the Longtail did not like the eerie silence that enveloped them. He hauled the crippled villager onto his shoulders, carried him a distance, then returned to drag Gor along.

    Some upheaval in the past had wrecked the road. Whole sections had fallen away, creating slopes and pits, and the giant roots ran everywhere, forming barriers that forced the Longtail to climb up and down. Large piles of debris, from chunks of stone-like material that had fallen from the buildings, created obstacles that forced the Longtail to detour around. Having to move back and forth for his two unconscious travellers made the already tiring trek even more time consuming and he was breathing hard before long.

   As daylight waned, the Longtail became more worried. The villager would not last much longer. The tourniquet had been tied hours ago, and if the Longtail did not treat the wound soon, the poor devil might lose the whole leg, and die from the shock. He was close to collapse himself. Fatigue had begun to settle deep within his bones, and he still had the unpleasant task of cauterising the villager’s wound ahead. Faced with no alternatives, the Longtail decided to look for a suitable shelter for the night in one of the ruins.

   The Longtail did not feel comfortable entering the building. He felt as if the building was looking at him, observing him. A large section of a wall had fallen in, giving them access to the interior. It was an empty hall of some sort, large enough to swallow several houses back in Red City. It was spacious, and solid. Although parts of the ceiling had fallen in so that he could see through the holes into the interior above, the structure looked sound. The sense of scale was dizzying and the sense of trespassing was so strong that the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up. Beggars could not be choosers however, and they needed to stop.

    An unpleasant task still lay ahead of the Longtail. Not wanting to venture too far into the dark hall, he laid the villager down on level ground near the entrance. He peeled off the bloodsoaked makeshift bandage he had tied around the villager’s ankle hours ago. The Longtail winced at the sight. The wound had started to blacken, about a quarter inch above the cut. There was no smell of rot, so it was not putrefying, but the lack of blood flow was killing off the limb. Blood was still oozing out in copious amounts. It wasn’t a hemorrhage, but the villager would die from blood loss and blood poisoning soon, if the wound was not closed.

    The Longtail sat back on his haunches, sighing and rubbing his eyes, trying to figure out his next move. He had nothing to close the wound with. He looked around, and his eyes fell onto Gor’s heat spear. The Longtail toyed briefly with the idea of using the heat spear somehow as heated metal to close the wound, then gave it up as futile. He had no idea how to use the heat spear, and was more liable to kill the villager than do anything useful. Then a thought struck him, and he stood up. The heat spear was a stupid idea, but he remembered Gor had a knife. The thug had threatened him with it enough times in the past. The Longtail reached over and searched Gor, drawing out the knife from its sheath slung on his belt.

    It was a good steel knife. Well forged and tempered, the sharp steel glinting in the fading daylight. No one without a great deal of coins could lay their hands on something like this. The heat spear, this knife and the masks. Elder Imru must be a generous patron. The knife would do very well, but he still needed something to make a fire with.

    The Longtail wrapped his arms around Gor and began dragging him into an unobtrusive corner. Although he was reluctant to leave the two unconscious males by themselves, they had no fuel to burn with. He would have to venture back out to see if he could pick up some dried wood he could use to start a fire. After he had hidden Gor and the villager in an unobtrusive corner out of sight, he stepped out of the ancient building to scavenge. If there was any good to the profusion of plant life that had invaded the city, it was that kindling was plentiful. The Longtail soon gathered enough dried wood and logs.

    Back in their camp, the Longtail built a fire pit with the rocks and debris around him. He built it deep enough that the light of the fire was shielded; the Longtail didn’t want to draw any predators that might be out hunting in the night. Reaching into his satchel, he took out one of his dwindling heat stones and with the utmost care, struck it against the floor. He could ill afford to waste the heat stone, and was gentle when building the fire.

    In no time, he had a fire going. The Longtail took a moment to soak in the heat. It was cold and he was glad of the warmth. Turning to the villager, he peeled off the bandage again. The Longtail took a deep breath. The weight of what he was about to do made him nervous.

    Drawing out the knife, he held it over the flames, heating and cleansing it. When it was hot enough, the Longtail took the knife and placed it over the wound. His hands shook. Clamping his other hand over his wrist, he tried to stop the trembling. He set the knife aside and bit his lips. Gritting his teeth, he took up the knife again. He was just delaying the inevitable. Taking several deep breaths and with a snarl on his lips, he clutched the villager’s leg and touched the heated blade onto the wounded flesh.

    The villager awoke with a scream. Eyes bulging, he trashed in pain. Pulling his leg away from the Longtail’s grip with a jerk, the villager threw a punch at the Longtail. It struck the Longtail on the side of his jaw. The villager was too weak from the blood loss and the years of abuse from datang to do damage, but the shock of it stunned the Longtail for several moments. Spittle flew as the villager continued his assault, throwing wild punches at the Longtail.

    Cursing, the Longtail threw the knife to the side and lunged forward to tackle the villager, forcing him onto the ground. The villager could not put up a fight and succumbed with ease, feeble as he was. The Longtail leaned his weight onto the squirming villager, pinning him to the ground. Taking out his belt, the Longtail forced the villager’s arms behind his back and tied a dead knot around them. Then he pulled out a piece of cloth from his satchel and gagged the villager.  

    The Longtail stood and picked up the knife, wiping it on his tunic to clean off the dust and reheated it over the fire. The villager, eyes wide, tried to get away, crawling as fast as he could with only one leg. When the blade was hot enough, the Longtail walked over and straddled the villager. With a grim snarl on his face, the Longtail gripped the villager’s amputated leg, forced it against the ground, and brought the knife over the wound with a swift motion.

     The villager arched his back in pain, screaming through his gag. Flesh sizzled, and the Longtail almost threw up from the smell. The villager kicked his legs trying to buck the Longtail. Holding on, the Longtail continued his dreadful task. He took the knife and moved it across the wound, sealing it bit by bit. Small mercy that the Aetheric Tether had sliced clean through the bone. The Longtail had no skills and no tools to deal with exposed bones.

    The muffled screaming stopped, and so did the trashing. The Longtail looked over and saw that the villager had passed out. Turning back to his task, he sealed the rest of the wound as best as he could, cleaning and heating the knife as he needed to.

    He didn’t know how much time had passed, but at long last it was over. The Longtail stumbled off the villager, a weariness descending upon him. He was drained, not just in body, but in mind and spirit as well. Forcing himself to be thorough, he checked the wound. Red and angry from the burning, the melted flesh was ugly to look at. It glistened in the light of the fire, but it was no longer oozing blood. The Longtail was dubious about his handiwork, but it was the best he could do.

    He slumped down in front of the fire, across Gor. The thug slept on, muttering under his breath, and moving his hands from time to time as if to fend off something. Fever dreams, no doubt. From datang. Gor would continue to suffer them for several more days.    

    A distant thought crossed the Longtail’s mind. Datang often summoned the most pleasurable dreams and the deepest desires. Gor seemed to be in the grip of his worst nightmare instead. Then the thought drifted away, and with it, his consciousness.

 

3.

    Pushing the steel blade into the tough leather, the Longtail sliced open the wrappings sealing the clay casket. The sharp knife slid through the leather ease, parting it like paper. The Longtail lifted the clay lid and looked inside with satisfaction. Dried rations, wrapped in waxed cloth and enough to last them for a week or two, was packed in neat rows in the container. The contents made the Longtail feel almost cheerful. As cheerful as one could be on a chill, foggy morning on an alien world.

    Several days had passed since the three of them had arrived in this ancient, ruined city. The jars and caskets stacked around the Skybridge platform were filled with supplies - food, tools and other miscellania, as the Longtail had hoped they would be. The three of them would have perished if not for the foresight of whomever had left the supplies where they were, stranded in an alien world as they were with no knowledge of how to forage for what they needed.

    After waking from the harrowing task of cauterising the villager’s amputated leg, the Longtail had set about securing their shelter. He had ventured back out to the Skybridge landing and hauled some of the containers back. Gor’s knife was a boon, without which it would be an impossible task o tear through the wrappings to get what they needed. Even claws as sharp as Gor’s would have a hard time cutting through the treated sandmule hide.

    The Longtail was able to find water as well. There was plenty of moisture in the air, damp as it was, and the morning dew provided enough drinking water for them. Every morning, he had gotten up early to scrape off what he could from the leaves and branches of the plants around them. It was not much, but what they had kept them going. They had been granted a brief respite.

    His companions were still in uncertain conditions. Gor remained out, fighting the fever dreams. His body burned to the touch as the datang coursed through his veins. The Longtail kept a close watch on the thug, keeping his temperature down with soaked rags and feeding him water. As for the villager, he was, right this moment, glaring at the Longtail with murderous hatred, and the only thing keeping him quiet was the gag that the Longtail was forced to stuff into him.

    The villager had woken up screaming at him, hurling the vilest invectives. The shrill, ragged shrieks pierced his ears. Although the curses burned him to hear them, as he had saved the wretch’s life after all, the Longtail was much more concerned that the caterwauling would draw unwanted attention to them. He had tried to get the wretch to stop yelling, miming as best he could about predators, but it was all lost in the hysteria that possessed the villager.

    And so the Longtail gagged him and left him tied up. He was uncomfortable doing that. He felt dirty. He felt like Gor. It was also the only way to silence the frenzied villager. It was hard bearing the constant angry and resentful looks the villager threw at him though, and the Longtail felt a vague sense of disgruntlement at that. It was not his fault that the wretch had gotten his foot sliced off.

    He pushed the thoughts away. There were other matters he had to deal with. He put a pack of rations into his satchel and sniffed the air. The morning fog was heavy and wet with a biting chill as expected of this world, but it was also still. Almost dead. The air was not stale, but it did not move. The Longtail was loath to venture out, with the other two as yet unable to fend for themselves, but they had to locate his father’s camp. This was a temporary stop, for his companions to regain their strength. While they were safe for the moment, it was nonetheless too exposed, and their purpose, his and Gor’s, laid ahead. The Longtail’s plan was to scout today and discover his father’s whereabouts, if he could.

    Muffled cries stopped him as he slung his satchel over his shoulders and made to leave. It was the crippled villager. The Longtail turned back, and there was a pleading look in the wretch’s eyes, begging for the gag to be removed. The Longtail hesitated, then set his satchel down, walked over and took out the cloth that stifled him.   

     Regret was instantaneous. “Ye dirty rat! Ye cut off ma foot! I’ll kill’ya!” Spittle flew from the wretch, his rage making his shrieks incomprehensible. The Longtail winced from the ugly, piercing howls digging into his ears. He should have known better. Unpleasant as it was, he balled the gag in his fist to stuff the cloth back into the wretch’s mouth.

    Reading the Longtail’s intent, the villager became pleading in an instant. “No, no, no! No! Please,” he begged, “No! I’m just ‘ungry, and thirsty, is all! Please, no more gagging! Please...Lemme loose, where’m I goin’ ta run huh? Please!” The last came out a pathetic whine, and the Longtail felt disgusted. He felt like a bully.

    “Just shoot him and be done with it. He’s nothing but baggage and trash.” A rasping voice, dry with thirst and fever, came from behind the Longtail. It was Gor, and he had awakened from his fever dreams at last. The thug had drifted in and out of consciousness over the past few days, muttering and flailing against his invisible opponents. His incoherent mumblings had hinted at some past haunting him, although the Longtail did not pay much attention. It was good that the thug was awake and talking. It would still take many days for his stamina to recover, but being of sharp wits was a sign of recovery from datang.

    Gor pushed himself up into a sitting position, using his heat spear as support and grunting with effort. “I’ll do it if you’re too soft for it, slum rat.” He continued, panting, still weak from his ordeal and not yet recovered. He lowered the heat spear at the crippled villager.

    Wide-eyed and fearful, the villager looked back and forth between Gor and the Longtail. He shrank back. He could still remember Gor’s ruthless readiness to kill. Now that the wretch was alone, and without the datang lending him courage, he could sense the smoldering menace emanating from Gor, even as sick as the thug was. 

    The Longtail shook his head. He didn’t want to see any more deaths. Not for a while, a long while. Gor curled his lip in contempt, but put his heat spear away. The villager sighed in relief.

    “Where are you going?” Gor asked in a shaky voice as the Longtail picked up his satchel again. It was an odd feeling for the Longtail, hearing the frailty in Gor’s voice. The Elder’s henchman had been a constant, intimidating presence for the Longtail this whole time, and in this weakened state, all of a sudden, the thug did not seem so threatening anymore.   

    The Longtail shrugged. He wasn’t sure how to convey his intentions. He pointed to the path outside their camp, the one that they were on, and mimed following it further down. He looked at Gor, not certain if he understood.

    Gor narrowed his eyes as he tried to puzzle it out. At last he asked, “Scouting the area?” The Longtail gave a non-committal tilt of his head. It was close enough, he supposed. He had already checked their area when he was looking for water. “You’re following the trail further down, to try to find the priest?” Gor asked.

    Surprised, the Longtail nodded. He hadn’t thought Gor would catch his meaning. Gor considered this a moment, then grunted, “Wouldn’t hurt to check out the path. Can’t stay here.” After a brief pause, he spoke again. “I know the priest had been holed up here. Not sure where, and don’t know for how long.” The Longtail raised his eyebrows. This was the most that Gor had ever told him about their purpose since they had ridden out of the Elder’s safehouse. The Longtail turned to leave, his resolve strengthened and intent on finding traces of his father.

    The villager, who had been watching and listening to the exchange with an anxious look on his face cried out once more. “Oy, wait!” Gor glowered at him and the wretch cringed, but pushed on. “Please, please, ye can’t leave me like this! Food, wa’er...please. Just sum’ing ta eat an’ drink, please…” The Longtail hesitated, but took out a bit of food from their ration stores and water, and left it beside the villager.

    The villager continued his beseechment. “Lemme loose….can’t eat with me hands tied! Please, not gonna run now, no way, my leg’s gone!” The Longtail paused. The wretch was right, he could not run, but the Longtail did not feel comfortable giving the villager his freedom.

    “Tie his hands in front of him. Then loop it around his neck. Make sure the rope is not too long.” Gor’s voice sounded from behind him. He had been watching. The crippled villager looked none too happy with Gor’s suggestion, and shot him a glare. Gor ignored him.

    “Oi, oi. Lis’en. Wha’s yer name, huh? Yer got one? Ye mus’ve. Dasher, ‘hat’s me. I’m fast!” the villager, whose self-given name seemed to be Dasher, pointed to his chest, puffing up with pride.

    Gor snorted in disgust. Giving oneself a name was taboo. Dishonourable. Something only criminals and low lifes do. The Longtail shifted in discomfort. He did not share the depth of Gor’s feelings on this, but it did feel wrong. It was an ill-fated name too, for Dasher would never run again.

    Dasher did not seem to have noticed the other two’s reactions. “Listen, ser.” A wheedling tone entered Dasher's voice. “Look ‘ere. Ye gotta free me. Canna leave me tied up like ‘his!” Relenting, the Longtail decided to untie Dasher. He still didn’t like the idea of the villager being free though. The Longtail rummaged through one of the sacks and found some stout twine. He loosened the belt he had bound Dasher with, then with quick movements, before the villager could resist, tied him again in the manner Gor suggested.

    Dasher did not take it well. His face twisted into fury. “C'mon! Lemme go! Ye cut off me ‘oot!!” The last turned into a shriek, spittle spraying eveywhere. The Longtail winced in annoyance at the sound, and reached for the gag again. Dasher snapped his jaws shut, trembling in outrage. The Longtail waited a moment longer to see if Dasher would protest further, but the wretch said nothing more. The Longtail got up, slung his satchel over his shoulders, and walked away.

    The unnatural quiet that surrounded the city enveloped the Longtail as soon as he stepped out. He shivered, and not from the cold. There was something very wrong with this place, but he could not figure out what. Ears twitching, he kept still for a while to catch any signs. Of what, he wasn’t sure. He hoped not to find out.

    Nothing. He moved forward on the path that he was following before he had to make a stop for his companions, and was careful not to make a sound. In this blanket of silence, the slightest noise carried. He kept his feet light, and set a pace that covered as much distance as he could.

    The Longtail kept a keen eye on his surroundings. He didn’t know what hid within the ruins and the uneasy feeling of eyes on him continued to haunt him. The path, broken through in places with dips and rises that he had to climb, wound past scores of towering, angular buildings, much like the one he made camp in. It took him underneath a bridge that soared overhead, held up by thick granite columns several meters high. He had to crane his head up to see the bridge. Judging from the direction it ran, he thought it might be one of the roads that fanned out from the Skybridge platform.

    He reckoned he had been walking for an hour or so. The further and deeper he travelled into the ruined city, the thicker the profusion of roots and branches of plants, crawling and twisting across the crumbling structures. In some places, the roots and branches became formidable barricades; walls every bit as strong as granite and stone. That sense of unease began to turn into tension and anxiety. He stopped. Crouching alongside a section of a plant wall, the Longtail took a closer look, lifting a root with the tip of his finger.

    The root was tough, with almost no give. It had a waxy surface with fine hairs that caught the morning condensation. The Longtail dropped the root and shuffled a couple steps further down, and examined a leafing branch. The leaves were small, and had the same coating the roots had. There were small pink buds dotting the ends of the branches. Flowers, perhaps. Walking several meters down the path, he studied more of the branches and leaves, then took several steps back to get a wider view of the wall.

    The roots, branches and leaves were all of the same type and looked to the Longtail as if they grew from a single source. That was disturbing if true, and he wondered how far the plant might have reached. Perhaps it covered the entire city, choking out all other life in the process, hence the dead silence.

    The Longtail kept a wary distance from the roots and branches as he continued on his way. He did not yet understand the true nature of the plant, and it would be prudent to be careful until he did. From past experience, things grew in a strange and twisted manner in this world. He half-expected the roots to reach out for him and ambush him.

    He kept going. Along the way, he kept a mental map of where he was, noting down landmarks and peculiarities, inventing shapes and giving them names to help him remember. He pushed on for another hour or so before he had to stop.

    A great cliff barred him from pushing further. The path ended because a huge section of it had sunk into a depression. Looking, he could see that a large circular area had collapsed. Either the foundations it was built upon had become too soft to support it, or it had been weakened somehow and the structure around it had caved in. The Longtail had no way of knowing for sure, but given how old the city seemed to be, he thought time might have taken it down.

    The Longtail walked towards the edge and peered over it. The drop was severe. Several meters from where he stood to the bottom of the depression. He would break his neck trying to scale it. Gazing up at the sky, he could see the sun reaching its zenith. The midday sun blazed through the chill and the day was beginning to look like a hot one. There was nothing else he could do today. The Longtail got to his feet and retraced his steps. He wanted to get back while there was still daylight. He would also have to figure out a way to get past the obstacle in front of him.

 

4.

    Gor tossed another piece of wood into the cackling fire pit. He had shifted closer to the campfire since his datang-induced delirium had broken, for the heat soothed the dull fever ache in his joints. He settled back, careful not to let the sigh of relief escape. Not in front of the vagrant and the dirt rat from that nasty little hovel. He didn’t trust either of them; the vagrant was weak, and the dirty rat was a petty scoundrel.

    At least the vagrant was somewhat useful, contrary to his earlier expectations. He had shown himself able to know his way about in the wilds, although the sullen way he carried on was annoying. That, and his inability to communicate made him tiresome to drag around. It wasn’t all just because the slum rat was mute either. Gor thought the vagrant just wasn’t used to others around him.

    The slum rat had returned late afternoon that day. He had made some incomprehensible gestures that Gor could make neither heads nor tails of when he asked the unkempt rat what he had found. All he could make out was some kind of a descent that the vagrant wanted to attempt. He didn’t give it much more thought. If the vagrant wanted to poke his head around, he could do that, until Gor had recovered from that damnable fever.

    Glancing around the camp, Gor had to admit the vagrant slum rat was resourceful. He had spent the day tearing out the roots and branches of the wild plants growing about them, beating and twisting them into ropes. Earlier, he fashioned tarps from the leather sacks and caskets, stringing them up to catch dew for water. There was a good stock of fire-wood and kindling, with the ashes used to preserve embers for the next day’s fire. They even had a pot now bubbling with some kind of stew.  

    Gor felt someone watching him, and turned to face the dirty hovel rat. The dirt rat dropped his eyes and hunched over, intimidated. Dasher, he had called himself. Gor’s lips curled in contempt. Naming himself. What a shameless thing to do, but he supposed dirt rats like him needed something to prop up their worthless pride. He did not understand why the vagrant thought it worth the while to save the dirt rat’s grimy, unwashed hide, but what was done was done. When he recovered his strength, he would deal with the dirt rat. One way or the other.

    Footsteps told him that the vagrant was approaching. The slum rat moved into Gor’s field of vision and held up a length of the makeshift rope he made. It looked sturdy enough, but the vagrant couldn’t be wanting his approval for something this trivial. He looked up, and the slum rat was making some strange motions, pushing the rope up, then pointing to the sky. He made a few circles, gestured off to some direction, and now pointed at the dirt rat and Gor, looping the rope around his waist and thighs as he did so.

    Squinting at the slum rat through the fog in his head, Gor felt a burst of irritation flaring. The Old Ones’ stones, but this mute was hard to understand. “I don’t know what you are gesturing about, slum rat. I have no patience for all this jabbing and pointing. Leave me be.”

That sullen look entered the vagrant’s eyes again. Gor snorted. What a child. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

    The Longtail stared at the thug’s supine form, fuming. He had wanted Gor to ready a harness for the thug himself and Dasher. The Longtail was heading out again in the morning to scout the rest of the trail, and after he learned where his father had secured himself, they might need to move their camp as well. The harness would make travel much easier with the two of them weaker than newborns. The Longtail balled his fists in frustration at Gor’s uncooperative dismissal, then stalked back to where he was and sat staring into the flames for the rest of the night.

    When the first dim rays of light broke through the shrouded night sky, the Longtail was glad at last to be on his way to explore the rest of the trail. He slung the coiled length of the rope he had made yesterday over his shoulders, packed a few necessities into his satchel and slipped out of camp while the other two were still sleeping. He had had a troubled night, vague dreams of dark persuasion keeping him from rest. Moving his body helped clear his mind with simple actions and tasks he could focus on.

    Having scouted the trail once allowed him to move through it a second time with swift confidence. The Longtail kept his vigilance still, but covered ground in less time than he did now that he knew where he was going. In a little over an hour, he reached the cliff where he had stopped the day before.      

    Kneeling over the edge of the cliff, he uncoiled the rope and let it roll down, measuring it. It was just a meter or two short, and did not reach all the way down, but the Longtail could drop the rest of the way down. It was good enough. The Longtail secured the rope around a protrusion from the ground, a metal bar half buried in the stone ground which perhaps served as a foundation in the distant past for the builders of this city. Whatever powers the builders possessed had kept the metal bar from being eaten away by the elements in all the centuries since, and it was sturdy and stout. 

    Tossing the rope over, the Longtail grasped the rope and shimmied down with quick, practiced movements. When he reached the end of the rope, the Longtail kicked himself off and landed on the ground with a graceful leap.

    The fur on his back stiffened again. That sense of being watched returned. Putting his back against the cliff wall, the Longtail scanned his surroundings and strained his senses to catch signs of….anything. For long moments, he held still. There was nothing. Not a sound, not a whiff of anything out of the ordinary, if anything in this ancient ruin could be called ordinary.

 

    That sense of being watched did not pass, but the Longtail could not remain where he was either. His needs pressed him on. A cluster of buildings stood before him in the distance, and the remnants of a path towards it - the same one he had followed back on the ledge before an unknown catastrophe from the past had brought this entire area down. Pulling his cloak tighter around him, the Longtail crept forward, keeping to the shadows and using the debris littered across the landscape for cover.

    It was slow progress, and it was many hours by the time he reached the end. The path had taken him to a domed building, quite unlike the rest of the soaring obelisks so far in the ruin. It was not as tall, but covered a much larger ground area. The domed roof was stonework, carved and paneled. Small windows ringed its sides and the rest of the building had walls constructed into sweeping lines supported by elegant columns. A grand staircase, ravaged by time and crumbling in places led up to a courtyard connected to a doorway, several feet tall, and twice as wide. The doors appeared to have long since collapsed. 

    Looking up at the sky, the Longtail tried to gauge how much daylight he had left. The sun was long past its zenith, and would set in a few hours. He was not keen to be caught out in the open when it turned dark. The Longtail would have to shelter here for the night.

    Keeping his ears stiff for any sounds, the Longtail climbed the stairs with a series of swift leaps, jumping over weakened and decaying sections. He crossed the courtyard, crouching low and moving as fast as he could without making a sound. The Longtail reached the yawning entrance, and stepped inside after a brief hesitation. There was no telling what he would find within but he liked being outside in the dark less.

    Nerves, he told himself. Just nerves.

    The interior was dim. Fitful rays of light passed through the small windows that ringed the dome he had seen from the outside, which he now could see was paned with thick glass, stained with the passage of time. He took a few more steps into the halls of the domed building, letting his eyes adjust to that familiar gloom that seemed to permeate every abandoned building he had ever came across. Soft sighs and murmurs danced just outside of his hearing, as if the building spoke to him, reminiscing about its bygone days of glory. He strained to track its source, but could find nothing. He shook his head. Now was not the time to let his fancies overtake him.   

    Silhouettes began to coalesce as his eyes adjusted. The building was in much better shape than he had first supposed. Large cracks ran through the walls and structure, but the walls still stood and were whole. As he began drinking in the details, the Longtail could see that this building did have days of glory. Unlike the other edifices he had seen, which were geometric and had a utilitarian feel to their function, this building was lavish once upon a time. Remnants of fine carvings, long since crumpled away into dust, remained etched upon the walls and he could still see traces where paintings and tapestries might have hung, whispering the memories of the tribe that had walked the halls of this mausoleum. There was a faded grandeur to this place.

    A sense of trespassing, of having invaded a sanctified space, washed over the Longtail as he stepped into what must have had been the central hall. A circular atrium with a large pedestal that once held something important in the distant past stood in the middle. Corridors split off at the back of the atrium, leading deeper into the building.

    The Longtail paused, considering his options. He could just find a corner and wait out the night, but this place was big, and he knew not what might slumber within. He did not want to be caught by surprise however, and it would be safer to explore at least his immediate surroundings. He might even find signs of his father’s passage. Picking a corridor at random, he began exploring.

    The Longtail found nothing. Not at first. One of the passageways had fallen in. Some weakness in the walls had caused it to collapse, and the debris blocked any further entry into its depths. The rest led to nowhere, either to featureless walls or more blocked passages, and although there were doors along the way that promised more mysteries behind them, they were impenetrable; the Longtail could find no way to open them.

    Defeated, the Longtail decided to make camp for the rest of the night. The feeble light that struggled through the thick glass panes of the dome windows faded away as night fell, plunging the already sombre atrium into near complete darkness. The Longtail did not want to stumble in the dark, and chose a corner to sit and rest, chewing on the jerky he had brought with him.

    As the Longtail sat in the inky shadows that cloaked the interior of this ancient building, he became aware of a faint rhythm in the structure’s murmuring. That soft, spectral whisper had been there the moment he had stepped foot into the building, and he had paid it no heed, treating it as background noise. Perhaps the darkness and solitude had driven his fancies wild, the Longtail wasn’t sure, but now he noticed that there was a gradual rise and fall in pitch. He stood up.

    Stiffening his ears, he tried to find the source of the murmuring. It was difficult to catch. The pitch was low, and the cycling of the rhythm long. The Longtail concentrated hard on the sound, and followed it to the collapsed corridor.

    The Longtail was stumped. He had searched this corridor before and was sure that it was a dead end. He stretched out his hands and began feeling the wall of debris in front of him. He pushed and pulled, checking for any loose chunks. Nothing. He took a slow shuffle across the length of the debris, feeling for anything out of the ordinary.

    It was so slight, he near missed it. A shift of air current, a bare drift, so weak it only lifted the hair on the tip of his ears. He stood still, like a statue, trying to make out where it came from. The Longtail stepped closer, towards a section of the collapsed passage way, near to the side. Lifting a hand, he felt for it.

    There! Somewhere just above him. He reached up and tried the wall. There was a loose chunk of stone. He pulled, and it came away with ease. Encouraged, he climbed up, feeling his way in the darkness. Finding a position where he could have some balance, the Longtail pried the rest of the section away.

    Soon, there was an opening, just large enough for him to wriggle through. With some effort, he managed to push himself into the opening and crawled out to the other side. It was awkward getting out. There was no space for him to turn, and he did not want to fall head first and crack his head in the pitch darkness. Deliberate and with caution, he felt for a handhold of some sort, twisting around to find a good grip.

    The Longtail was half way out when his grip slipped. He fell and cracked his elbow against a sharp rock. Bright, flaring pain shot up his arm, and he curled up in agony. Taking deep breaths, he waited for the pain to subside, then struggled onto his feet.

    He could not see a thing. The atrium on the other side of the debris was dark enough, but this was the abyss. The Longtail pushed out his hands, trying to find the walls of the corridor. Feeling like a blind rat, he took one careful step forward at a time. The low-pitched hum grew louder as he walked further into the corridor, hands upon the wall, shuffling like a geriatric.

    He stepped on empty air. The Longtail pitched forward as he lost his balance and tumbled downwards. He slammed face first into the ground a second later, the shock stunning him for a moment. Shaking his head to clear the ringing in his head, he forced himself to get up.

    The hum had turned into a steady, throbbing pulse. The Longtail had found the source of the constant whisper that pervaded the ancient building. Rows of soft blue lights winked in the dark. The Longtail took a step forward, and something soft brushed past his brow. Startled, he threw up a hand to ward off an attack, and found himself grasping a knotted rope instead. Relieved that it was not some predator waiting in ambush, he gave the rope a solid tug. It held. His heart thudded with anticipation. Varn. His father.

    Letting go of the rope, the Longtail stretched out his hands again and slid his feet forward, treading through the pitch-black chamber he now found himself in. The ethereal light did not provide much in the way of illumination, and he’d had enough falls in one day. Step by ginger step, he closed in on the glowing lights, and his palms hit a strange object.

    The Longtail ran his fingers over it. It was a large rectangular block, about his height, a little taller and it had an odd texture, almost metallic. Not iron, or steel, but an unknown alloy. He had felt this before. On the moon that orbited the Cloud Ocean. That heavy door that led to the enormous room filled with flying machines. The Longtail shivered, as ominous memories of the spider guardians resurfaced in the back of his mind.

    He could feel the metal block vibrating beneath his fingers, in time with the humming. Now that he was close enough, he saw that the light was embedded into the blocks. Keeping his hands outstretched, he walked along the rows of metal blocks, wanting to get a sense of the room’s scale.

   It seemed large. At least twenty or thirty meters lengthwise was his guess as he reached one end of the room, and perhaps just as wide, although he could not tell for sure. The Longtail was tempted to explore the area, but it was too dark. It would be wiser to head back. Wait out the night, return to camp and come back with proper equipment and some kind of light to explore further.

    He was about to retrace his steps when, just out of the corner of his eyes, the faint glimmering of the glow lights threw up a silhouette in the far corner of the room. He froze, wary of predators, or some custodian like the spider guardians that had hunted him in the room of the flying machines. Eyes squinting, he waited. The pulsing lights flashed again and for the briefest of instance, he caught a glimpse of what it was. Something that was out of place in this decrepit architecture of alien design.

    Excitement rose within the Longtail. He strode forward, lengthening his stride in his eagerness, tripping over some loose rocks along the way. He did not care. As he got closer, the shadows began to resolve themselves into a makeshift writing table and chair, assembled from the debris around him. On the desk stood numerous objects, including an oil lamp.

    The Longtail broke into a run, unable to contain the elation now beating in his chest. His father was here. He was sure of it!  At long last, after so many years of fruitless searching….! His chest tightened, and he would have let out a cry had his voice not been burnt away.

    Shaking with the emotional tempest jostling within him, the Longtail reached for the lamp. It sloshed with oil when he grasped it. He flung his hands out over the makeshift tabletop and felt for anything that he might light the lamp with. He found a tinderbox and with shaky fingers, he struck the flint.

 

    The oil lamp flared with a warm golden light as sparks hit the wick from the tinderbox. The Longtail squinted against the sudden glare, wrinkling his nose against the sooty smell of burning oil.

    Stacks of parchments and well thumbed journals lay on the table as well as the ground around him. Empty bottles of ink and damaged quills were tossed into a corner with careless abandon, alongside an assortment of trash. Caskets and leather sacks, same as the ones near the Skybridge platform, were heaped against a wall a little distance away, and a crumpled bed roll was set beside the desk.

    Carrying the oil lamp with him, the Longtail crossed over to the caskets and leather sacks. A thin cloud of dust billowed when he opened one of the leather sacks. The Longtail sneezed, then froze as the sound shattered the silence and faint echoes ricocheted through the room. There were still packs of rations and other supplies in the sack.

    Judging from the dust, this spot had been abandoned for several months at least. The Longtail opened up one of the ration packs and took a bite from the cake made of dried meat and ground meal. The sweetness of dried spine bush berries tickled his tongue. Six months, perhaps a year, had passed since this was brought here, but no more. The berries’ flavour would have faded to nothing if left for longer than that. The sudden flavour on his tongue sharpened his hunger and he wolfed the rest of the cake down.

    After he had his fill, the Longtail returned to the makeshift desk. He was disappointed. He had hoped for a fresher trail of his father. Still, it was the closest he had ever been in many years. He opened one of the journals at random and started to read, hoping to glean some insights into his father’s motives.

    He read until the light from the oil lamp ran out, going through as many of the journals as he could. The flicker of dying light broke him from the spell and he leaned back, pressing the palms of his hands onto his eyes, rubbing them to release the strain from reading in the low light. The Longtail heaved a sigh, staring into the darkness. The journals were not what he had expected. Not that he knew what he should be expecting.

    The journals were filled with notes. Most were ciphers. Varn had been decoding and translating a language. The Longtail presumed it was the tongue of the dead tribe that had built this city. Whatever it was, the letters bore an eerie resemblance to the script he had found on the Moon of Crystal Flowers. The letterings Varn was working on were angular, but not quite as sharp and rough as the writings he himself had found. Perhaps it was an earlier script that later evolved into what his father was translating here. That would make the structures he discovered on the moon to be even more ancient than he thought. Perhaps…..

    A wild thought flashed through his mind. Perhaps these were the ruins of the Old Gods themselves…..No. It was a foolish thought. The glyphs were too different. He did not see how these angular scripts could have evolved into the smooth flowing lines of the Old Ones.

    The Longtail removed his satchel and folded it as a pillow. Lying down, he pulled his cloak over and closed his eyes. He was tired. Weary. Disappointed too, if he was honest. He had wanted Varn’s story, not his research. He wanted to know what his father’s thoughts were. Why he was here, and what he was hoping to find. What drove him to do what he did. Instead, all he had found were the ciphers, and some numbers and symbols that made even less sense than the ciphers did. Maybe he could make more sense of it in the morning, but now all he wanted was the oblivion of sleep.

 

5.

    The Longtail looked up from a passage of great complexity that he had been trying to puzzle out, eyes narrowing in annoyance at the increasing volume at which Gor and Dasher had been bickering. He forced himself to focus and buried himself in the book again, trying to make sense of what Varn had written down. He had been through the ciphers and it told him a disjointed story about this city, which he could not make sense of, but the numbers and symbols contained clues to his father’s whereabouts.

    The Longtail had woken with a start from his sleep in the suffocating darkness of the underground chamber. Mind still muddled from his slumber, he snapped his eyes wide open in panic and threw himself to one side, slamming his head against solid rock. The Longtail winced in pain at the memory; it was a hard hit. It was pure stupidity to have used up the oil lamp, the only source of light he had.

    Putting one hand on the wall he had knocked his head against, he pushed himself up, trying to remember the layout of his father’s den. He took a step and stumbled over a sack. The dull clacking of clay jars knocking against each other had rung from the sack at his feet, and a thought flashed through his mind then. His father had been here...what? Several months at least. Searching and studying. He couldn’t have done all that in total darkness.

    The Longtail bent down and flipped open the sack, putting his hand inside. He grinned when his hand hit a clay jar. He pulled it out and opened the cork with care, and the smell of lamp oil hit his nostrils. His grin grew wider in relief. Of course his father would have had a supply of lamp oil. Keeping his hands as steady as he could, he filled up the lamp. Then he took the tinderbox, and struck the wick with it. The lamp lit up, pushing back the darkness of the ancient chamber.  

    Clarity of mind returned to the Longtail as he basked in the soft, warm glow of the lamp. He should head back to camp. He had been away from the other two for too long. Gor and Dasher were still weak from their ordeals and needed care, if they had not killed each other already. Besides, he thought as he looked over his father’s notes, he might be able to find out more if he did not have to worry about time and light for a deeper study of the journals. Pulling his satchel over his head, he pocketed the jar of oil and stuffed as many of Varn’s unread journals into his satchel as he could.

    The lamp had illuminated more of the room, and shown him what he had missed in the shadowed gloom before as he retraced his steps to the fissure where he fell. The walls of the chamber had not weathered the centuries well. Cracks ran like spider webs across its facade, which in some places had fallen away. In time, the walls would crumble from the weight of the structure above and the building would collapse in on itself, burying all that remained in a tomb of stone and timeworn wreckage.

    He did not know what to make of the mysterious blocks of strange alloy. There were far more of them than he had thought, and the featureless surface gave no hint of what it was. Featureless save for that tiny slot of pulsing light. Some of the blocks had lost that ephemeral glow, and when he stepped closer to one of the blocks to investigate, laying a hand upon its surface, he could not feel that steady vibration nor hear the low pitched humming that the other blocks had.

    Whatever those metal slabs were, they would remain an enigma that the Longtail could not solve. Not wanting to use up the lamp again, he climbed out of the hole, left the domed building and made an uneventful trip back.

    It was late afternoon, almost evening, by the time he returned. A tense confrontation awaited him. Gor had his heat spear leveled at Dasher, a haughty look on his face. Dasher was trembling with rage, but was too much of a coward to rush forward and commit the murder that shone in his eyes. The Longtail stood staring at the two of them, wondering what had brought this on. Dasher dropped his eyes to the ground and slunk away, muttering under his breath. Gor watched him for a beat longer, then lowered his heat spear, turning his attention to the Longtail.

    “What took you so long?” the thug growled.

    Annoyance flooded the Longtail hard. His own patience with Gor and Dasher’s petty rivalry was about near its limits. The two cripples were more trouble than they were worth. One had had his foot sliced off with a foolish stunt, and the other was weak as a baby. He had to play nursemaid to both all this while, and his search for his father had ended fruitless with yet more riddles than answers. Why in the name of the Old Ones could these two ingrates not just give him some peace?! The Longtail wanted to march over, snatch the heat spear from Gor and club the two of them senseless with it.

    Instead, he clenched his teeth and bit down his frustration, forcing himself to swallow it. He opened his bulging satchel, took out his father’s books and began reading, trying to ignore the cold stare Gor was giving him.

    That had been days ago. He had spent that time alternating between nursing the two irritating males and going through his father’s notes. With a great deal of effort, he had been able to understand bit by bit his father’s ciphers, and it told an intriguing tale about the ruins in which they found themselves.

    The city had stood for a long time. How long, Varn did not seem to know. The end of this enormous place came not in a single apocalyptic event. It was a long, slow decline that lasted many centuries. There were scattered mentions of an unnamed adversary, the nature of which was unclear. The Longtail did not think Varn knew much about this mysterious enemy either. This conflict had strained the city and worn it down as events escalated. It fell into neglect and decay after inhabitants either died off, or fled elsewhere. It was a tantalising tale, and had tickled the Longtail’s curiosity and imagination. Alas, he had other things to worry about than to satisfy his desire to know.

    With more study, he had also been able to work out his father’s numbers, albeit with great difficulty. It appeared to be a frequency setting for a Skybridge, but it was unlike anything he had ever seen. It didn’t appear to so much as lead somewhere as it did to….well, the Longtail wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to do. He did not know near as much about the functions of the Skybridge as did Varn.

    One bit of good fortune he did have was finding a draft map his father had made. It showed where Varn was headed, another Skybridge somewhere in this city. The Longtail’s mood had lifted right there and then. They had a way out of this dead world. Varn did not say where the Skybridge led to, but reading ahead the Longtail could see that his father had given some clues as to where he planned to proceed afterwards. It would require more study, but for now, the Longtail had managed to work out the directions with a little bit of scouting. The fur was beginning to straighten on Gor and Dasher, showing signs of recovery and they had enough supplies to keep them going for a good bit. With any luck they could…..

    A yelp of fear broke the Longtai’s concentration again. He looked up just as Gor fired off a shot at Dasher. The blast clipped Dasher’s ears, singing the fur and raising smoke. Dasher fell on his backside in shock. Trembling, he crawled away as fast as he could.     

    The Longtail rushed Gor and yanked the heatspear away from the thug before he could fire off another shot. Gor narrowed his eyes at the Longtail and in a soft, dangerous voice said, “Give that back.” Three words only, but it held a promise of pain and retribution.

    Lost in his own rage and resentment, the Longtail did not feel the threat. Gor’s words only served to send his anger boiling over and he slammed the butt of the heatspear onto the ground. Gor contorted his face in fury, bared his fangs at the Longtail and hissed like a snake at him.

    The Longtail bared his own fangs back at Gor. His head throbbed with his outrage, and the thunder of his heartbeat drowned out the noise around him. He noticed, in a dim and distant fashion, that everything in his vision had become tinged with a reddish hue.

    Gor struggled upright and settled into a defensive posture, the anger fading from his face as something grim took over. That look of resolve shook the Longtail and brought some senses back. The Longtail had lifted the heatspear by the barrel, hefting it over his head like a club, intending, it seemed, to hammer Gor with it. Shock at what he was about to do drained his rage.

    Dropping the heatspear in shame, the Longtail turned and left. He needed to be alone. Needed space. To calm himself.

    For a time, he walked, not knowing or caring where he was going. He didn’t like the way he had reacted back there. It left a strange taste in his mouth. The Longtail had never cared for violence, and had always avoided confrontations. Confrontations made him uncomfortable. So he walked, hoping that he could outwalk the shame and confusion and leave it behind.

   The last light of the day was almost gone by the time calm had returned to the Longtail. He found himself staring at the thick barrier of plants he had inspected earlier. He did not realise he had wandered this far off. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes. Weariness settled deep within him. Not of the body, but of the spirit. He ought to get back, but did not want to go back and deal with the two antagonists again. He stared at the plant wall, not quite able to force himself to go. Then, with reluctance dragging his steps, he turned away.

    And turned right back towards the barricade. Something was different about it. Something had changed. He reached out a hand and ran his fingers across the branches and leaves. He could not quite put a finger on what was wrong, what was different, what was …….

 

    Realization struck him like a thunderbolt. The wall was much thicker than before. It now covered a larger area. He retreated several steps in haste. How could it have grown so fast?! He could see roots growing past the wall and the budding flowers had begun to bloom now. Small clusters of flowers dotted the branches, and their velvety petals formed a familiar shape, gleaming in the twilight with a deep shade of crimson. A color he could not forget.

    It was datang. The flora choking the life out of this city was datang. The Longtail turned and fled. 

 

6.

    “What's wrong?” Gor rasped. The vagrant had stalked off earlier in a huff, and now came running back as if he had seen a ghost. The slum rat, chest heaving in ragged breaths, gave him only the barest of glances, then dashed towards his ratty stachel and started pawing through it.

    The unwashed vagrant pulled out the two masks they had worn when getting through the datang field and tossed one to him. Gor caught the mask at the last moment, almost dropping it. His muscles felt like water and his thoughts were still fogged by datang. Blast him, but he felt weak as a pup, and he did not like feeling helpless. It ate at him, and he did not want to play guessing games with the vagrant now. Not when that slum rat who didn’t know his place had threatened him earlier, even slamming his heat spear into the ground. He would pay. Gor would make certain of that.  

    Gor started to toss the mask aside, but the vagrant started miming in the most ridiculous manner. He would have laughed, but there was an intensity to the slum rat’s eyes that made him pause. He kept opening his hands, cupping his palms together and spreading out his fingers. Then he pointed at the mask and then at that crippled stray they picked up. Old Gods take him, but his head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. Gor wanted to close his eyes. The slum rat looked like some absurd stage player, opening up his hands like some stupid….

    All of a sudden, everything clicked in his mind and Gor understood what the vagrant was trying to say. “Datang, here?” Tension made his voice tight. The vagrant nodded, a look of relief on his face. That was grim news. Grim and astounding that the same perilous plant could be found on another world. Gor secured the mask on his face as fast as he could.

    ”Wha? There’s dream weed, ‘ere?? Where?” Dasher had been listening in while cowering in a corner. His eyes had lit up with an unpleasant hunger the moment he heard mention of datang. These past days had been nothing but a complete misery for him. His whole life had been miserable, but at least he had still had his foot and could smoke once in a while. Now, he was stranded in some strange place with a dumb, pissy brute and a mute busybody. His whole body ached all the time and he was so damn itchy!

    “Where?!” The hollow, ferocious need driving him from deep within made him bold.

     The Longtail looked at the villager, brow furrowed in frustration. Dasher was going to slow them down. There was no way he could walk on his own in his condition. The Longtail sighed. He should have found the time to make some kind of crutch. The Longtail turned around and walked towards the canvas screens he had fashioned from the sack cloths.

    The look of hope drained away from Dasher’s face. “Oi! Wai’tere! Where ye goin’?” He called out after the Longtail.

    The Longtail took down the screens and started to make a rough harness. He did not have any needle and thread, so he had to use the makeshift rope he had made from branches. He could not just leave Dasher behind. The unfortunate wretch would not last longer than a week by himself. He folded the canvas into a sort of pouch and secured the corners with the twine rope as much as he could into something like a strap. It would be enough to hold up the villager’s leg in a sling and Dasher could lean on his shoulder while they hobbled along. It was a bad idea, but it was better than nothing.

    Meanwhile, Gor had struggled to his feet and packed away as much supplies as he could into the saddle bags they had salvaged from his ill-fated sand mule. The Longtail stuffed his father’s journal, the tome he had been studying and the rough map his father had drawn, into his own satchel. They worked as fast as they could, and a little over an hour later, the trio set forth, hoping that Varn’s trail led to some way out of this dead city.  

 

7.   

    It was a risky flight, traveling through the night in an unfamiliar territory and with two of them almost immobile. Gor had to take constant breaks. He kept up with a fierce determination, but the datang fever had ravaged him and left him a far cry from his former self. The makeshift part-harness, part-sling contraption the Longtail had fashioned for the luckless Dasher had allowed the villager to hobble along at a painful pace while leaning heavy upon the Longtail’s shoulders.

    If there was a hunter out there, they would be easy prey. The rest of that night passed without incident however. The Longtail was beginning to think that whatever animals might have once made home in this ancient, ruined city, they must all have been devoured by the datang that had taken root here. That demonic blossom had choked all life except its own out from this place, and the Longtail had no desire to be the next victim. The rate at which the wall had grown in just a few days scared him. Frightened him to no end. It was as if it knew they were here and was reaching for them.

    He wondered how his father dealt with the horror, having stayed here for months. There was nothing like this in the Red Desert. No datang patch there could ever grow to cover an entire city. Could it be the proximity to the Skybridge? Long exposures to the Old Ones relic warped life in strange ways.

    The Longtail did not know. He did not want to stay to find out and they were moving slower than a wagon without wheels. At least none of them had shown any signs of delirium yet, and the trail they were crossing was much smoother than he had feared. His father had marked out a long circuitous route that had taken them through more of the ruined city. The Longtail had the feeling his father was skirting something, and the Longtail was content enough to follow Varn’s footsteps in that regard.

    They had been on the path for a few days and with each passing hour, the Longtail breathed a little easier. Gor had kept going with a determination that was approaching fanaticism and was so focused on moving that he said nothing most of the time. Even Dasher’s complaining had abated. Somewhat. The villager was fighting his own ailments. The cauter on his leg had started to become warm to the touch. The Longtail feared it might be infected, and cleaned the wound as best as he could. Despite everything, the Longtail was starting to become optimistic about leaving this world at the rate they were going. Until, that was, they reached what appeared to be a dead end..

     Varn’s map had led them to one of the many monolithic buildings that dotted their landscape, and pointed straight through it. It was with some trepidation that they studied the foreboding structure in front of them. Well, the Longtail did. He didn’t know how the others felt. Gor seemed impatient to be off, and Dasher had fallen into another sullen silence. The Longtail was not keen to rush into the building. He knew nothing about its layout or whether the structure still held. The Longtail did not want a repeat of getting nearly trapped in that abyssal basement where his father had stayed. The Longtail felt he had just been stumbling headlong into one near disaster after another since taking that Skybridge to the Outer Worlds.

    He scouted around the building. Without knowing it, they had gotten onto one of those sky roads that went tens of meters above the ground. Descent was impossible without a lot of back-tracking, and every other potential route had either crumpled or was blocked by debris. With no other choice, the Longtail entered the building to scout it out, and left the other two outside, wariness weighing his step.

    It was pitch dark inside. Remembering how he had fallen into the hole earlier in the domed building, the Longtail lit the oil lamp as he looked for a way out. It was a good thing he did, and even better that he had not brought Gor and Dasher along. Much of the stone floor had fallen away, forming gaps and breaches everywhere. It would be easy to misstep in the dark, and fall into one of those. It was a long way down too. The Longtail had tossed a small rock into one of the breaks, and it was several seconds before he heard a faint plonk.

    It sounded like water, which the Longtail did not expect. Perhaps there was some kind of underground river in the depths, running beneath this building and the city. That did not change the fact that from this height, it was a death sentence plummeting in, and so he kept his distance and picked his way forward with caution.     

    Varn’s map was useless here, he found. It was a rough enough map in the first place, and there were no markings or indications on how to get out. The Longtail had to retrace his steps many times as he kept hitting walls of impassable rubble. He found himself sometimes climbing up or down to different levels of the building as he explored the enormous area. Stone pillars and long walls forming corridors shaped the place into a labyrinth. At times, he found rooms, which still held remnants of objects which reminded him in a vague fashion of furniture, although no craftsmen he knew could work anything like what he saw before him. Not the Tree Dwellers, not the Stone Singers, and not anyone from either Howlstone, Red City, or anywhere else in the Red Desert. That feeling of having walked over a grave when he was in the domed building returned again, stronger than ever.

    As he proceeded further into the depths, it became harder to keep track of where he was, and he made marks and built waystones in rough shapes that he would be able to recognise in the gloom later when he returned with the others; he needed to conserve the lamp oil. Another lesson he learnt.

    Time passed while he slogged through this veritable maze. His lamp started to die out, and the last vestiges of daylight announced their imminent departure. He had mapped out as much as he could, picking out the best route past the broken flooring. The path went through a descent to a lower level before ascending twice more, and snaking further in. It would not be an easy trek. Exhausted, he decided to stop when he found a flight of stairs that led even further upwards into another large hall. There was nothing more he could do that day, and he did not want to be here in total darkness. He headed back to the entrance of the building.      

    He had half expected to see that Gor and Dasher had killed each other off when he arrived, but it was quiet. Dasher was still sulking, and Gor had fallen into a half sleep. The Longtail was glad for the silence, however it came to be.

    Gor cracked his eyelids open when he heard the Longtail approach. “You found a way through?” he asked, voice raw from exhaustion. The Longtail shrugged. He sought a corner and sat down, letting out a sigh of relief. He wasn’t sure if what he had mapped was the right way forward as he had only gone halfway in, but at least the trail did not end in yet another blocked off passage covered in wreckage. It was a testament to how wrung the datang fever had left the thug that he did not pursue the Longtail with more questions. Gor closed his eyes and slumped back into sleep.

    The Longtail decided that was a good idea. Propping his satchel as a pillow, he pulled his cloak over him and slept. 

    The Longtail woke to Gor prodding him with his heat spear. Annoyed, he reached out and grabbed the heat spear, and yanked it away. Gor let go without much resistance, and the Longtail was about to confront him, but the haggard, lopsided smile on the thug’s face stopped him.

    “The hovel rat’s gone. Snuck off. Took our stuff too.”

    The Longtail whirled around to where he saw Dasher the night before. He was gone. Springing to his feet, he went searching for their equipment and found the saddlebags that held them gone, just like Gor said. All their supplies, including what water they had, was stolen. More important than even those was the oil lamp. That had been taken too. Crossing the building would be very hard without light.

    The Longtail raised his palms to his eyes and rubbed them with slow, circular motions, trying to calm himself and think. At least his father’s notes remained. They had been safe in his satchel. Dasher could not have gone far, not with one of his legs sliced off. The Longtail bent down to the floor, attempting to pick up Dasher’s tracks. He had to get their supplies back. They would have better chances swimming in the Dune Sea without their gear.

    Within moments, he found drag marks left by Dasher. The villager was headed further into the building, in a sort of crawl. It did not look like a pleasant way to move. He stood up and motioned to Gor, pointing at the darkened hallways. Gor shrugged and waved his hand back at the Longtail, telling him to lead the way. The Longtail hoped they would not find Dasher having fallen into one of the holes. That would be the end of him right there.

    The Longtail set off, with Gor pulling up behind. They did not rush. Slow was fast here, without light to see. The Longtail took the trail he had marked out yesterday while keeping his ears open and nose keen. On some level, the Longtail had to give Dasher respect for escaping in his condition. The Longtail didn’t think he would have lasted as long as Dasher had if his own foot had been cut off. Thinking about that made him shiver. Being stuck in one place, unable to walk on his own power, that was hell to the Longtail.

    It was the smell that caught his attention. The sour stench of fur that had not been cleaned in years, and the cloying smell of rot. The Longtail had become familiar with that aroma in the past few days, being forced to shoulder Dasher. He made a downward motion to Gor, asking him to stay still. He did not want to spook Dasher and have him take off again with their supplies. Crouching low himself, the Longtail sniffed the air, trying to determine the direction Dasher was hiding in. In no time, he found the scent and crept forward.

    Settling himself down to wait, Gor watched the vagrant sneak away. He supposed the vagrant had found the hovel rat. He could see the vagrant well enough in the dark. Gor had spent the last several years in the shadows and under the cloak of night. One got used to the darkness fast in his line of work. The slum rat could move quiet when he wanted to, and that sense of hearing and smell was….good, Gor had to admit. The slum rat could make a decent bounty hunter. Not for the first time, he wondered why the Elder was obsessed with the vagrant and his father, enough to have sent him on this jaunt to this unsettling place, and all the other previous jaunts he had to suffer.

    There was a scuffle, and the familiar piteous whining from the hovel rat grated on his ears once again. He could see the vagrant’s silhouette wrestling with the dirt rat, pulling him away from his hiding place. Some kind of stone table, Gor was not sure what it was. This place made his hair stand. There was all this stuff lying about, and the shapes were almost recognisable. He was not one to give in to fancies, but he could just about see the ghosts of the tribe that inhabited this place, going about their business. The near but not quite familiarity just made this place even more sinister to him.

    The vagrant had managed to snatch away the supplies the dirt rat had stolen from them. Gor set the butt of his heat spear to the ground and levered himself upright. It was incomprehensible to him why the slum rat insisted on bringing the hovel rat along. Would have been easier and saved them so much trouble if they had just shot him. Maybe it was some kind of kinship amongst thieves and dirt rats.

    A wave of dizziness struck him and he gripped his heat spear for support. Gor took a slow, deep breath to steady himself. He cursed that vile pollen. It had weakened him in ways he could not have imagined, turning his legs to jelly and hollowing him out. Days had passed, and he was still weak as a mewling pup and not getting any better.

    The vagrant returned, hovel rat and missing saddlebags in tow. The vagrant handed the saddlebags to him. Gor took them and put them over his shoulders. The weight of the saddlebags almost toppled him, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to stop swaying. He would not show any weakness in front of the vagrant.

    They set off. Somehow, the slum rat got the dirt rat pliant enough to hobble along in that ridiculous contraption he had made. The dirt rat had a ugly look on his thin, desperate face however, and Gor kept his eye on him, ready to shoot if he tried anything funny. He had about had enough of the hovel rat and wanted to see him gone.

    The trail was….strenuous. The vagrant had picked a route that involved too much climbing. The ways that went down were much more difficult than they should be, and left him giddy and breathing hard. More than once, the fool vagrant and hovel rat near killed themselves falling into the abyss trying to climb while tied together in that awkward manner. They got through in the end though, and Gor was more than glad when the vagrant called for a stop in a large open area. He didn't let it show of course. Leaving the slum rat aside, the hovel rat would jump him if he showed any weakness.

    He examined the area around him as he lowered himself to the ground. It was a hall. Large, and constructed in an odd manner. It felt more like a warehouse than anything meant to hold people. Some of the floors and pillars had fallen away, but it was more whole than what they had just passed through.

    The place seemed safe enough anyhow, and he didn’t much care beyond that. He was at the end of his strength for the day, and he did not bother himself with what the vagrant and the dirt rat did next. He had the saddlebags and he intended to keep a death grip on them this time. Gor closed his eyes and soon fell into a light meditative sleep.

    A light rustling woke him. Without opening his eyes, Gor swung the butt of his heat spear at the hand reaching for the saddlebags. The dirt rat yelped and backed away.

    Rising from his meditation, Gor opened his eyes. The vagrant was gone, no doubt to scout ahead again, and the hovel rat was trying for his freedom once again. Gor gave the hovel rat his nastiest grin, and the dirt rat lowered his eyes, backing further away like the scavenger that he was.

    Returning to their rest stop, the Longtail once again found Gor and Dasher staring at each other. Or rather, Gor was staring at Dasher, hands on his heat spear with a mirthless smile. Dasher was hunched over, eyes staring at the ground in front of him. Resigned, the Longtail motioned at Gor to get up and get going. At least there were no dead bodies.

    His mood was buoyant. He had found a way out of the building. The hall they were in fed into a road of sorts that led out of the building, onto another one of those sweeping sky roads. It matched the trail his father had marked out on the map as far as he could tell. From there, it would be another day, perhaps two with their speed, before they reached the endpoint. With any luck, it would be a working Skybridge that could take them to the next step of their journey.

    The Longtail set a brisk pace. He could hear Gor breathing hard behind him, and Dasher was cursing under his breath. Even his own muscles were aching from half-carrying Dasher. He could not wait to get out of this world though, and continued pushing hard.

    It was evening by the time they reached the exit he found. The road ran ahead of them for a few miles before sweeping in a bend around a cluster of buildings. According to the map their destination was not that far after the bend. The road was clear of debris, and was close enough to being intact that it would not be too difficult a stretch. Despite that, it was getting late and they rested one more night under the shadows of the building before pushing on to head out in the morning.

    Travel the next day was as smooth as could be expected. The day was clear and the temperature mild. There was a gentle upslope to the road and it brought them further inwards the city. It was only from this height that they could see how dense and packed the ancient city was. Millions must have lived here once. More. The Longtail could not fathom that many living in one spot. Red City was already too crowded for him, and the entire city alongside the Temple would disappear in a single borough here. The scale was mind-boggling. Many of the buildings had impossible shapes that seemed to defy gravity, serving incomprehensible functions. No stone mason in the Red Desert could even dream of building anything as remarkable as these. Not in their wildest dreams. It was hard not to think that this….

    ”....’his place….,” Dasher wheezed, panting with the effort of his one legged hopping gait. “....’his….’his ain’t the place of the Old Gods, is it?” Dasher had plucked the thought straight out of the Longtail’s mind. “We...we ain’t treadin’ their graves or summat, are we? They’re not gonna smite us fer disturbin’ their rest?!” There was a snort from Gor, but it lacked the usual certainty and arrogance.

    The Longtail kept his disquiet to himself. He thought it was not. Just like that hall with the flying machines on that Outer World moon, there was something about the way things were built, and the way the language flowed that said no, they were not the same. Even so, the size of this place made it hard not to think they might be.

    There was complete silence after that, but Dasher’s pace picked up a little. As did Gor’s. As did the Longtail’s. It might not be the Old Ones’ grave, but it was the grave of something.  

    Several hours of hiking later, the trio rounded the bend and went past the cluster of buildings they had seen. The sky road began to decline in a gentle slope, bringing them deeper into the heart of the city. Gargantuan buildings on either side of the road blocked out the sun, plunging them once again into a claustrophobic gloom. Squinting ahead, they could see the road leading them towards a giant wall - a wall that was fifty meters tall. Daylight was fading by the time they reached it. Up close, they could see that the wall was a mix of alloy and stone with scaffolding and ladders all across it.

    An immense gate stood before them and their passage was blocked once again. Some incredible trauma in the past had struck this section of the wall, shearing a good section of it off. Rubble had caved in the giant entrance, and they would have to find another way in.

    Setting Dasher down, the Longtail scanned the derelict before him, looking for some way to get past the wall. Gor mirrored the Longtail, moving to one side and studying the crumpled wall as well. After a moment, Gor hefted his heat spear and pointed. ”Here.” The Longtail looked around. Some of the scaffolding had fallen down at the spot that Gor was pointing at. “Looks like we could climb up using those.” Dasher groaned upon hearing that. He’d had enough of climbing with one missing leg.

    Gor was right though, they could use the fallen scaffolds to reach higher walkways and work their way up. The Longtail didn’t know how they were going to come down the other side, but they had come this far. Pained resignation crossed Dasher’s face when the Longtail came back to haul him towards the obstacle ahead.

    Picking their way with care, they climbed. Night hit them before they could reach the top, and they made camp huddled against the side of the wall, a dizzying distance above the ground. At this height, the wind was fierce, howling and beating at the wall, rattling the walkway on which they camped in a most alarming manner. Dasher muttered fervent prayers beneath his breath, but even Gor did not have the heart to shut him up. It was nerve-racking; each creak and sway could tear the walkway off the wall, and they would plummet to their death.

    Morning came, and the weary travellers, having not slept a wink the night before, continued their ascent. Their progress was even slower than before, for the walkways and ladders became more fragile the higher they climbed. They reached their last stretch when the sun was overhead. The scaffolding had fallen away here, and the only way up was to scale the wall itself.

    It was not a long stretch, perhaps two or three meters, but at that height and with the ferocity of the wind unabated, it was a harrowing endeavor. The Longtail could feel the strain in his forearms as he clutched what handholds he could find, fighting to keep the wind from tossing him off to smear the ground below with his brains. His calves cramped with the effort of keeping his balance.

    He clenched his teeth. He had to keep moving. The Longtail threw out a hand for the next hand-hold, a section of protruding stonework. He grunted with the effort of holding his body weight with just one arm. The Longtail tightened his grip and prepared to pull himself up.

    The stonework crumpled. For a brief, heartstopping moment, his balance came off. Adrenaline surged through his veins and he pushed his shoulders in, using it to fling his hand out, scrabbling to find purchase. His fingers found a metal bar buried within the stonework and he closed his fist in desperation and gripped the bar. It bent. And held.

    The Longtail let out a shaky breath. Having learnt his lesson, he tested the bar before trusting his weight on it. He pulled himself up. And up, and up. His world narrowed, and he focused on pulling himself up one hand-hold at a time.

    Then he was clear. Hissing with the effort, he pushed his screaming muscles to haul himself over the top of the wall. Exhausted, the Longtail took deep, heaving breaths as he lay on his back and looked up at the clear, blue sky. His arms and legs felt like water, and he could not move a single inch if his life depended on it right now.    

    “You can take your time, slum rat. The wind won’t blow us away anytime soon,” Gor’s sarcasm floated up from below. What an annoyance, the Longtail thought. Grimacing, he forced himself to sit up, then gaped, his mind trying to comprehend what he saw.

    The other side of the wall was an enormous compound. The enclosure was at least a kilometer across. The wall, of which the part they climbed was but a small section, circled the area, cradling it like a fortress. He could not make out what was in the compound, what was so valuable that it had to be guarded by such a formidable barrier, because the destruction within was utter and complete.

    It was what had devastated it that stunned him. Roots, hundreds of curling, twisting roots, each at least several meters in diameter, had wormed their way through the entire compound, eating through and breaking up the unimaginable engineering of the ones who had built this city. The roots radiated from the center of the grounds before him, burrowing past the walls that guarded whatever was within.

    Growing atop this massive root structure was a single blossom. Its petals were unfurled in full, covering almost the entirety of the enclosure, and the shape was familiar. As was the deep crimson hue that seemed to throb like a beating heart with every shift of sunlight. The petals were thick and rubbery, webbed with what looked like blood vessels. The center of the flower was a dark pit, and the Longtail could just about make out a ropey mass of fleshy growth that glistened. Dazed, the Longtail pulled out his mask and slipped it on, hoping it was not too late.

    With a sinking feeling in his heart, he pulled out the map from Varn, and sure enough, it led right towards the center of the compound. Right towards the...he did not know what to call this. It was a hundred - no, a thousand times the size of its treacherous kin. He hoped its pollen did not also prove to be a thousand times more treacherous.

    He leaned over the edge of the wall, and motioned to Gor, pointing at his mask. Seeing him, Gor cursed and grabbed his own mask and secured it. The Longtail then threw a rope down, and began the slow, tedious process of hauling two grown longtails up over the wall.

    Dasher, who was up first, had an eager look on his face when he got up. He had seen both the Longtail and Gor put on their masks, and was aching to find datang. He was disappointed at first, not seeing any trace of the flowers, then his jaw dropped.

    “Tha’....tha’s….is tha’...?” He stuttered, not knowing what to make of the giant blossom that was close to a kilometer in diameter. But of course, this was Dasher, and a moment later he said, “Wha’ kinda dream smoke d’ya think tha’ would make?”

    The Longtail ignored him, and concentrated on pulling Gor up the rest of the way, whose only word upon seeing the giant blossom was, “Ugly.” The Longtail could not disagree. “Don’t tell me, we go right in there?” Gor was trying to be sardonic, but there was a tightness in the way he said it that betrayed his tension. The Longtail could only nod.

    “Wonderful. Just what we need.”

    There wasn’t much to be said after that. Getting down the wall was not as difficult as the Longtail feared. The series of ladders and walkways were connected well enough for them to descend without too much challenge. It was still a demanding task, but it was not dangerous, and they were panting with exertion by the time they were on the ground looking up at the enormous flower now looming over them.    

    Down here, the monstrous blossom was even more imposing than from above. The mass of roots it had put out was an undulating landscape of obstacles, rising and falling, with huge gaps between each root yawning like open maws. Traversing it would be a challenge, and the Longtail could not shake the feeling that the hellish flower was aware of them somehow.

    The massive weight of the flower and its roots had collapsed the ground structure of the compound. The entire place was held up by the sheer mass of the flower’s roots. The Longtail shuddered to think how far below the grotesque plant grew. He could see a knot somewhere at the base of the flower, near where the stem would be in an ordinary bloom. The roots - or branches, or whatever was holding this thing up, lmade it look to the Longtail like it had wrapped itself tight around something. He tried to make out what it was.

    “A Grand Bridge. There.” Gor pointed straight at the knot. There was a note of quiet awe in his voice, so different from his usual haughty manner. “A big one, much larger than the one in the Temple.”

    He was right. The Longtail moved to get a closer look, and now he could make out the familiar outlines of a Grand Bridge, much larger than any he had ever seen, tilted at an angle. Now, he understood how this deviant datang came to be. It must have fed on the energies given off by this Grand Bridge over untold centuries, twisting itself into this miscreation before them. A mutant so large that it could wrap itself around a Grand Bridge. This Grand Bridge. He was also certain now that this was how Varn had left this world. He might be able to find his father on the other side of the Grand Bridge.

    Nevertheless, he hesitated. If he had been alone, he might have gone ahead, heedless of whatever surprise the flower might throw at him. With one cripple and another still recovering from his debilitating brush with datang pollen back on the Red Desert, he was not confident they could reach the Grand Bridge.

    Rustling from Gor made the Longtail turn around. Gor was taking off his mask. Alarmed, the Longtail reached out to grab his arm. What was he thinking?! Had he become addicted to the pollen?

    Gor sidestepped the Longtail and avoided his grasp with ease, even weak as he was. “Be still, slum rat,” Gor said, gesturing towards Dasher, who shrank behind the Longtail, hiding from Gor’s attention. “Look at him. He’s still clear headed. As clear headed as he will ever be anyway. I do not think this overgrown weed here puts out any pollen.” Gor slipped the mask from his face and took a breath and waited.

   Moments passed, and he said, “I feel fine.” Turning to Dasher, he grabbed him by the hair on his head and pulled him close, studying his features. Dasher squirmed, and after a moment, Gor pushed him away. “The dirt rat is fine. He’s not under the dream weed’s hold. Take off the mask, slum rat. It will make the going easier crossing that.” Gor nodded at the sea of roots.

    After a pause, the Longtail took off his mask as well. The thug was right, breathing through the mask was hard, and they had a hard enough task ahead of them. No sense in making it more difficult still. When the Longtail was satisfied that they were not becoming delirious, they set off. As expected, the journey was draining. Parts of the original ground structure still held, lodged in between roots, and that aided them in getting past the roots.  

    Evening had fallen by the time they reached the Grand Bridge, deep within the ominous shadow casted by the behemoth above them. The air was dank, and rivulets of slime ran down the trunks of the flower, giving off a smell of rot strong enough to make Gor and the Longtail put their masks back on. Dasher looked sick; the rude bandana he tied around his snout kept only the barest of the stench away.

    The roots had not yet wrapped themselves in full over the Grand Bridge. They had torn the Grand Bridge off the ground they had been resting on, hauling it up on an angle. The Bridge itself was intact, as it would be, being an artifact of the Old Ones. There was just enough leverage and space for the three of them to climb onto the Grand Bridge. The slime on the roots had made it a difficult task, but they managed it, although they stank to the high heavens by the time they were done with all the slime that got onto their clothes.

    Activating a Grand Bridge was a much more complicated affair than with a normal Skybridge. A Grand Bridge required a much wider Aetheric Tether, and the much larger energy mass meant control was much more difficult and needed more calibration. On top of that, the entire bridge was off angle by a huge margin, and lining up the harmonies so that the bridge would take them to the right place made it even more challenging. The Longtail spent several uncomfortable moments dangling from an awkward angle while he worked the controls. His father had discovered most of the harmonies, but it was still anardous task to feed all that into the Grand Bridge. When he was done, he motioned at the other two, who had been waiting by the side trying their best not to fall off, to get to the entrance.

    The Grand Bridge began to glow, concentrating its mysterious power. The doors to the Grand Bridge opened, and Gor dropped himself in first, sliding against the wall and landing with a grunt at a corner. Dasher hesitated, remembering the last time he had taken a Skybridge, then cursed under his breath and began crawling towards the opening. The Longtail stepped towards the entrance, and the bridge trembled.
    For a moment, the Longtail thought the Grand Bridge was vibrating because it was not resting on solid ground. It was worrying, but minor tremors would not be enough to knock the Grand Bridge off course. He continued on his way, careful not to slip on the slime.

    The bridge shook again. This time harder, much harder. The Longtail looked up.

    It took him several precious moments to take in what was before him. He could see the veins that webbed the petals of the flower hanging overhead pulse. It throbbed, every beat a mighty thud. The petals fluttered, as if swayed by a gentle breeze. Except that no breeze could have moved petals of that size. It would have taken a storm to shift the thick, rubbery folds even an inch. He was still trying to make sense of it all when the Grand Bridge trembled again, and he understood at last.

    The flower was moving. The Longtail scrambled for the Grand Bridge. The energy. The flower had been feeding on the Grand Bridge’s energy, and all that power coursing through the Grand Bridge as it summoned the Aetheric Tether had been like ringing a dinner bell. In waking the Grand Bridge, they had awakened the monstrous blossom as well.

    The Grand Bridge rocked, and the Longtail stumbled, almost losing his balance. The roots were moving, tightening their grip around the Grand Bridge. He threw caution to the wind and ran, almost slipping and falling to his death a few times. He reached the Grand Bridge’s doors and leapt, tucking himself into a ball, tumbling in.

    “Wha’s going on?!” Dasher shouted, spooked by the rumbling and the Longtail’s desperate entry.

    The Longtail just shook his head. There was no way he could explain that, mute as he was, and he didn’t care to anyway. He was tense and worried. The Grand Bridge would close soon, and the Aetheric Tether would take them away, but if the Grand Bridge was moved too much, there was no telling where they would end up.

    The Grand Bridge chamber grew brighter as the Aetheric Tether anchored itself. The rumbling and tremors grew louder and harder. The doors began to close with agonizing slowness. The Longtail stared at the door, willing it to close faster. As the panels closed, the Longtail caught sight of the flower twisting to face the Grand Bridge in full.

    The Aetheric Tether hummed and the inner chamber was filled with the ethereal chiming of the Grand Bridge’s song. The Tether flashed out, not straight up, but angling towards the horizon and curving away from the ground into the planet’s stratosphere, before arcing towards the stars. The Tether bore through the giant flower cradling it like a lance, through walls of stone and steel, and through buildings that stood for thousands of years, burning a hole past everything in its way. There was a keening in the air and a loud rumble as the flower trembled and died.

    The monstrosity collapsed in on itself, its weight bearing onto the Grand Bridge. The Aetheric Tether rocked, tossing the occupants inside the Grand Bridge chamber like dice, and the Longtail found himself, for the first time in his life, reciting prayers to the Old Gods he had been taught as a child by his father.

    Another flash, and the chamber shot through. The Aetheric Tether carried its occupants away from Earth and into the void just as the stress of the flower’s weight collapsed what remained of the ground, pulling everything within the compound into the abyss below the city.