The City on the Rock

He grabbed his sword and a chainmail shirt from the Tower, then headed to his destination.

The entryway to the cavern was a well-kept secret. No one but Salan and the High Astrologer knew its location, and he was ordinarily forbidden to go there. If everyone in the city knew, the vagabonds and traitors, few as they were, would defile the waters. But now he had to go in, for the good of the city. The Astrologer would disapprove, but Salan knew what had to be done.

He walked into the city park—a small quarter-mile square with browning grass, cypress and cedar trees. The rain would undoubtedly do the dry garden good. A small cave was nearby; this he entered quietly. Inside sat a pile of stones four feet high. At once he began picking them up. Some were extremely heavy, but Salan tossed them aside with relative ease. He had long improved his strength, fighting Hamminid warlords of the southwest and even more terrible, nameless things that came from the whispering desert sands.

When they were gone, he stepped down a small hole into a stone tunnel. This he traveled, winding aimlessly. Water dripped from the ceiling and it felt claustrophobic—very uncomfortable, to say the least, in armor, but he continued.

Eventually he came to a door, old and unused, leading to the chamber. He opened it, afraid of what he might see.

He was right to be afraid.

There, standing in front of him, was one of the shadaren: one of the ancient enemies of the city. She had crawled out from a hole in the cave. Her skin was deep purple like a bruise, her eyes blazing fires. She looked like some heathen desert goddess—a thing that Hammidian idolaters worshipped in the dead of night, a thing to whom they sacrificed rams and goats on a bloody altar. She had nine arms ending in clawed hands and six legs covered in gold anklets. Her mouth opened and a handful of centipedes crawled out.

Yet still, a strange attraction built inside Salan. Why did he not want to kill this monstrous thing? He could not strike her down. “Who are you?” he snapped.

She said nothing. She only stared at him blankly, eyes glowing in the darkness.

Salan drew his sword. He noticed the Nine Pools were dark and murky.  The Hammidian plunderers who wanted to destroy the city might soon have their way.

It took great resolve to overcome her spell. He called upon the gods and forced himself to charge. He severed one of the shadaren’s nine arms with his sword. It fell, bleeding black, to the floor, but the shadar-queen did nothing. He chopped again. Another dropped, bleeding black.

One more stroke cut her in half.

Out of her flesh came a hundred thousand centipedes, which quickly devoured her skin and her organs to nothingness. Salan grimaced. They crawled away, finished with their meal, and dropped into the defiled pools to brood.

~*~

Salan turned around and walked back the way he had come, shivering. He climbed up the hole and out into the park, where the proud cedars now dripped wet and water clung to the yellow grasses. The rain hadn’t yet stopped. As he looked around, he caught sight of a Tower Guard—one of his fellow soldiers. It was Kamal, an ebon-skinned foreigner from the far south. Years ago he came to the city as a refugee; and the people of Baradon welcomed him. There was a spear in his hand, with a long cedar shaft and a broad, leaf-shaped blade.

“What are you doing?” Salan asked.

“Nothing,” Kamal answered. “I saw you in the park, so I followed.”

“Why?”

“Is that blood on your sword?” Kamal said.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I was resting my bones at the prayer house on Green Street,” said Kamal, “You looked concerned, running through the rain.”

Salan nodded slowly. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, right?”

Kamal nodded and began walking away in the direction of the Tower. Salan eyed him with a growing suspicion.

The cold rain rolled down his cheeks as he walked home.

When he got back to his house, Dala was awake and staring into the night sky. The rain pattered onto his small face as he watched.  He was still in his white bedclothes; the bright fabric shone in the moonlight. He hugged his favorite toy, a stuffed lion, close to his chest.

“What are you doing?” Salan asked.

Dala’s lips pursed in a straight, somber line as he stared intently into the sky. “Looking into the stars,” he said.

“There are clouds in the sky. You can’t see the stars tonight.”

“But the stars can be seen by the heart—they are always visible to those whose eyes are truly opened.”

“What do you see?”

“Sad signs. The constellations of Harnu and Salaris are in recession.”

“What?”

“Kal the Impure has gained prominence. The moon is a waning crescent.”

“Speak! Speak words that make sense! What is wrong? What ill signs do the stars foretell?”

“A man of high rank has made bad friends,” Dala said.

Who?

“That’s all I know,” said Dala.

Salan furled a brow. “How can it be stopped?”

“The stars tell one story,” his son said, “The story of the earth as it would be, had no one listened to the stars’ wisdom.”

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know—and I won’t for a while. I don’t see anything else written in the stars.”

Salan sighed. “Go to bed. You should get some sleep.”

“Are you going to bed?”

“No.” He had to investigate. Corruption in the city would not be tolerated, not as long as Salan was captain of the Tower Guard. He had to investigate, and the premier division of government—the one with the highest prestige—was his organization, the Guard. He would go interrogate his soldiers.

“Let me stay up with you!” Dala pleaded, eyebrows wrinkled. He squeezed his stuffed lion.

“Hush. You must sleep. I’ll see you in the morning, Dala. I promise. I’ll make breakfast.”

“Really?”

“Yes, but you must go to sleep.”

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