Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Finding transport downriver turned out to be far more challenging than I anticipated. Not that there weren’t sailors willing to take me, but rather that everyone wanted me to accept their offer. Despite her earlier reservation about her son pestering me, she practically shoved him forward to offer his father’s boat for my travels. I declined as politely as I could, soothing her worries by explaining that others needed to be involved, that the whole village share in the glory.
In reality, I didn’t want to create any favoritism situations. While her son hadn’t done much besides barrage me with questions, he’d been the first to initiate actual contact and had absorbed the most direct dialogue from me. Even though I’d gone on to canvas the rest of the village for transportation, if I hadn’t taken another family’s boat, the other villagers most likely would have inferred a partiality that simply didn’t exist. But by splitting the aid provided from among them, they could more easily accept that the whole town bore equal responsibility for the help they gave me.
As I climbed into the boat, a single-mast vessel with the sail down, I felt a tingle on my spine that felt like worship, sacrifices, and sacred oaths. The faith of these humble villagers, though nothing I could really do with it, cut off from my divine powers as I was. And it wasn’t much to speak of, but I appreciated their belief nonetheless.
I spent the journey downriver lulled by the rocking of the boat and the rhythm of the oars. The river sparkled as the afternoon sun scattered across its rippling surface, the water wrinkling as the boat floated onwards. Although the distance between Malia and I grew with each passing hour, I didn’t feel the separation any, save for an empirical knowledge that we were growing physically apart. Our bond was still there, true, but it grew no fainter than it already had been since I passed through the boundary.
She would find a way around that obstacle, no doubt about it. Whether her breach was accompanied by fanfare or subtlety remained to be seen, but one way or another she would get through. Hopefully she would wait long enough for me to make my way to Palmyra, the city in the river delta and what most likely now served as the Paeden capitol. Once I was there, assuming my disguise remained intact, I could figure out some angles of attack, maybe even discover a hint as to Thane and Azoria’s whereabouts before Malia provided either a diversion or sent the city into a state of heightened suspicion.
Speaking of the city.
We’d made surprisingly good time down the river. By the time the sun cast its last rays from behind the horizon, we arrived outside the city limits. Palmyra had been built at the bottom of the river delta, the “point” of the upside-down pyramid shape. Only the ancients knew which side of the river the city had started on, for as it had grown through the ages it had spilled across the branching river to populate every habitable square foot of earth.
Here the architecture reflected its desert heritage much more strongly than in Karnak. The tan houses were squat and square, their roofs flat and open, with staircases on the side for easy access. Ziggurats, the pointless predecessors of the pyramids, bore long flights of stairs that bisected each side, paintings in faded reds and blues flanking the steps. Statues of stocky, bearded dwarves guarded the corners of the ziggurat pinnacles, mortal representations of the city’s former patron couple, Palma and Myrhha. The Paedens had integrated them into their pantheon when the region first came under their control, and so far as I knew the aged gods were enjoying their twilight years in their new divine residence.
Quaint history that did little to help me ascertain the current patron deity, but it was reassuring that the statues still stood. With how domineering Marudak seemed to be, the fact that he left the images of former rulers remain meant that, no matter how tyrannical he was, he at least left history intact. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, I found that reassuring, but I did. Maybe he had enough respect for his precursors and antagonists to leave their legacies untouched, or maybe I was misattributing his motives to a political inability to remove them without destabilizing himself.
Oh well. More things to ponder in the ever-growing pile of mysteries I was too uninformed to solve. As the boat approached a lower set of docks, I gathered my robes and staff about me and prepared to disembark.
Thank the heavens I arrived under the cover of night. I managed to keep my transporters quiet about my arrival and didn’t attract any attention from those on the docks, something I don’t think I could have managed under broad daylight. My robes would have drawn curious eyes like flies to honey, but with a full night to prowl the city streets I could perhaps find localized clothes or better prepare to unveil the arrival of “the Prophet” come the sunrise.
Unfortunately, most of the shops open at this hour were of the sordid variety. If Ulti had been here, they would have feasted among the various pleasure houses, gratifying themselves in the soft starlight. The innkeepers reclined against their door frames would have welcomed them into the taverns with broad smiles and sweeping gestures.
But as I passed, all I got were hard looks and stony faces. Several thought to approach me, smiling, only for their joviality to melt as the scant firelight cast from their taverns revealed my foreign robes and aged face. They would stiffen, mutter something that sounded like an invocation against evil, and retreat back to their businesses. Some went so far as to shut and bar their doors.
Well. I didn’t expect warm welcomes all around, but this was a far colder reception than I anticipated. Apparently the jubilation of the small fishing village was an isolated incident, and perhaps the prophesied arrival was viewed as a bad omen here. Or it could just be that an old man in alien attire, wandering the streets of their supposedly isolated city, had them rattled. If Paedaea had cut off Palmyra and the rest of northern Aenea from its southern brethren, it wasn’t impossible that all Carthians had been expelled or imprisoned.
Neither Seppo nor Malia had mentioned something like that happening, but if the region had been silent for months, it was a distinct possibility. While I found it encouraging that none of the city’s inhabitants had accosted me, I still took precautions as I continued on my way. Side alleys, dimly-lit back ways, sectors where the night dwellers were so lethargic they paid no mind to anyone but themselves.
With how muggy the night air was, I was starting to share their lassitude. My joints protested in earnest after a few hours of walking, each step rattled by the increasing grinding of my bones. The humidity made the air cloying, nearly plugging my nostrils and making breathing a chore. More and more, I came to rely on my staff as less of a prop and more of a support. I was old, gods damn it, and I needed a break every now and then.
My wandering became more aimless the deeper into the city I got. I wasn’t sure where I was going, exactly, but my gut said the derketo nest would ostensibly be somewhere downriver, close to the Great Sea. That wasn’t to say they couldn’t have some peripheral hideout on land, as supported by the invasion of Resef’s temple, but I got the impression of the derketo being monsters of the deep.
As for their social structure, they could be anything from a hive to a herd. I suspected the lone one in the temple was probably an oddity. Maybe it wanted the servant girl in particular, if she’d been attempted prey before but escaped. Or maybe it’d been on a mission, if the derketo structure allowed for such things. Or maybe...any number of things. I just didn’t have enough information yet, and I was trying to untangle threads I didn’t even have my fingers wrapped around in an attempt to take my mind off my annoying mortal, physical fatigue.
But my body had finally had enough. I found a secluded alley, occupied by two dark lumps beneath coarse blankets, the fabric rising and falling with the breaths of the sleepers beneath it. I shuffled past, taking care to avoid tripping over the sandaled foot jutting in the middle of the walkway. Steeling my nose against the acidic smell of dumped bodily wastes, I found a relatively clean spot behind what I hoped was an inn and curled up against the wall. Sleep came quickly.
For a moment, I thought I was seeing myself. I floated in the air, a figure at my side in faded robes much like the ones I now slept in. The air currents, warm and sticky, tugged at the soles of my feet as I hovered above the city. But as I looked closer, I realized that I wasn’t above Palmyra.
In fact, I wasn’t above any city I recognized. Although the buildings were square, like the predominant style in Aenea, the geography was all wrong. Hills thick with olive trees rolled across the countryside, giving the landscape outside the walled city the look of a sea frozen in the midst of a storm. A long river snaked beneath the cliff on which the city had been built, a ribbon of water connecting two saltwater lakes. Though I couldn’t see these bodies of water, I knew them in that uncanny familiarity of dream knowledge.
The robed figure shifted as it noticed my attention, frail hands slipping from its sleeves to sweep over the strange land below us. “War is coming.” The voice, feminine, sounded as if the speaker had spent too much time inhaling fumes. As old as I was, she conveyed an age that made me shiver.
“Who are you?” I asked. The dream had barely started, and already I felt mentally alert, almost fully refreshed. Which was really, really bad. Lucid dreams with the stench of prophecy often panned out, but they weren’t often experienced by gods. Even in my mortal form, it was highly unlikely that any pantheon, mine or others, would be foretelling in my slumbering mind.
A raspy chuckle fluttered her hood. “Wonder, half-god, and be content with unanswered questions.”
“Well, you can’t be—”
“I know your thoughts, child.” Another laugh. “I sift them as sand, and relish their simplicity. Will you hear my words before you awake?”
I frowned. Her tone was both knowing and teasing, not quite condescending but far too confident. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like whatever came next, but I’d be a fool to ignore the words of whatever being could invade sleeping gods’ dreams.
“Good. Know this, Aged Child, that when the Lion Cub has conquered all, he will take his place at the head of his pride. An Adder and an Apparition will be his undoing and his salvation. And when his kingdom is complete, from among the daughters of the Heavenly Bull will come a child who will be his downfall. She will take his pride from him, and rule in his stead.” She paused as the dream sun broke the horizon, feathering the sky with its crimson rays.
I didn’t like how much that portent resembled blood. The old sailors’ adage about scarlet mornings and taking warnings flitted across my mind. Yep, really didn’t like these omens.
She turned to me, and as she did her hood shifted, enough that I could see her cragged face fissure into a smile. “A final, simpler riddle. What happens when the jailor fears his prisoner more than his master?”
My forehead wrinkled. I had no idea where this was going. “The prisoner gets out?”
She nodded. “Beware the Prisoner, Aged Child.” And with that, she turned and vanished.
Chills gripped my spine so tightly I nearly woke up. And I wished I had. Even if I had to peel my sleep-deprived eyes open once awake, I would take all the physical maladies to suffering through the remainder of this dream. The prophetic portion was over, but I didn’t want to risk that woman coming back. She’d touched some primal fear within me, something I couldn’t rationalize away with the uncertainty of the dreamscape surrounding me. But I wasn’t waking up anytime soon, so I spent the rest of the dream doing my best to memorize the land below me. Whenever we reached this portion of the world during our coming war, I wanted to be fully prepared for whatever events this prophecy held in store.