Sunday, 13 June 2010

ebon zikkuract - the stair above

Your divine majesty, I beg forgiveness for my messenger's interruption.  I chastised him by your just decree.  After the attack from the western stair, the guards were replaced with warriors loyal to yourself and Ankil.  The hierophants expressed displeasure, claiming their guards were sufficient.  I begin my report of exploration of the stair above with an observation of the zikkuract itself.  I know little of other expeditions but ordered the execution of the guard who sold jewel-beetles to the traitor Nintag. When the hierophant of Algolia first ascended to the stair above, he walked along the walls and ceiling.  Many thought it some virtue of his status.  Our amazement to learn this miraculous place permitted anyone to do this was great.  Truly the gods show their favour!  Our scholar, Erkat the Scarred dropped plumb lines onto the other stairs to show this to us before we continued into the great city under the smoking sun spoken of by the hierophant.  His skill let us return safely.

The city is great, stretching to the horizon that reaches to the sky in all directions.  The air was hot and dusty, tinted with sunset.  As we walked down the zikkuract, a shepherdess hailed us and kept pointing west.  We did not understand each other, finally she left.  The buildings around the zikkuract were a mixture of hewn stone, clay bricks and cement, the ground was paved in places.  Their dwellers were strange people, weak and poor. Many wore concealing robes and shawls, a scant few who did not had grey skins with red stains about eyes and mouth.  Their movements were halting, their faces reminded me of lotus-addicts.  They spoke the same alien tongue yet looked on us with fearful avarice. The guards formed up, used spear hafts to push incautious beggars and grasping children from our group.  We made our way towards the edge of this desperate slum when a great gong sounded and the dwellers scattered like children, running into buildings.  We sought the shelter of an alleyway and watched in awe.  A brazen head flew without wings along the street, from it came an unnatural howl then a voice like that of the gods in holy Lur.  The same alien tongue but it spoke as a conqueror to a slave.  Then it rose into the air, raising clouds of dust as it ascended, circling like a vulture until we no longer saw it against the sun.

We sought an exit from the slum while the locals cowered within and found it after a time.  A market where the ashen-skinned slumdwellers came to beg or trade.  Here were many familiar and strange things for sale and their vendors called to us in the alien tongue and then in a sea of languages.  Then a spry old man with ebony skin, his head wrapped like the Amejai called out to Erkat in our language from amid a sea of reclining children who scattered as we approached.  After giving him a gold ring and sharing his salt and water, we spoke at length.  From this Akume we learned of the great city called Dhanaya. He thought us mercenaries from the black ziggurat hired to fight for the local lord (he used the word satrap) against the rebels.  I asked him how many ziggurats were here and he responded that he knew of six though these would take years to find.  "How big is Dhanaya?" asked Erkat.  "Bigger than you think.  No man has ever found it's end and it's cellars are endless.  It is too great for one ruler though many try."  Erkat was dissatisfied with this answer.  Akume responded "I have a hundred and one years.  I am the oldest in this ward.  In my youth I travelled far and wide, my last journey took a year to return from and in this time, I have never seen an end to the city.  I have maps that show strange things - all of them Dhanaya."  Erkat asked him of the bronze head and he grew quiet.  "A watcher.  Be wary and do not draw their attention for their games will kill anyone who does not know their part."

He reached into his robe and pulled out a folded animal skin - a map of the ward.  He taught Erkat and I some simple words in the alien tongue so we could ask for food and shelter then bade us leave for we would draw attention to ourselves if we stayed with him too long.  I asked why and he laughed.  "The local lord will think I am trying to distract you.  I am already a rogue and charlatan in his eyes."  I knew better than disagree, Akume had a wily look about him.  We thanked him for his hospitality and left his stall, Erkat hid the map and then we prepared to return.  Erkat said we had travelled almost a day through the great slum and if what Akume had said was true, we could spend our lives exploring this place without reporting back to your divine majesty.  He revealed the black rock and watched it point north then scowled and looked about him.  "The guidestone is deceived and the sun is constant.  We dare not return to the slum but we can follow it like a river course and the ziggurat is a memorable landmark."  On our journey through the winding streets and open courtyards we saw many strange things.

Eerie caravans of pampered, pallid men and women in fine linens borne on sedan chairs by red-skinned giants escorted by hooded warriors with tattooed gray skins wielding curved blades of dark metal.  White-haired men with masks of children harangued passers-by.  Cowled and robed figures smelling of rose attar and striking small gongs parted crowds by their presence as blue-robed men and women were surrounded by gaggles of children and beggars, eager to touch their robes.  Men with the heads of desert hounds and clad in breastplates of bronze crooned to each other where slaves were sold.  Among them city folk, beggars, fruit sellers and labourers of a dozen races.  Grim-faced soldiers with bronze spears, axes and boiled leather breastplates and wearing red cloaks broke up squabbles and disputes, moved prostitutes on and hailed us but Erkat said we were returning to the ziggurat, there wasn't enough money.  This drew grim laughter from them and they let us by with some unfamiliar words that sounded like swearing.  Another time we will defend our honour but their words were unknown and our mission more important.

When we came to the zikkuract, one of the brazen heads hovered before it.  It addressed both Erkat and I, asking if we would return.  Erkat said he hoped to.  I said that I did not know yet for my orders did not say.  The head seemed content with this answer and ascended into the sky.  We ascended the stair and heard the great gong sound twice.  Erkat has said to me that he believes Dhanaya is made by the gods, for only one thing would cause the horizon to curve like the inside of a gourd and that was if the city were built inside a great ball.  From the top of the ziggurat we could see the horizon curve upwards and away with buildings and courtyards stretching as far as the eye could see.  Though it seems impossible, Erkat's explanation makes sense.  I do not know the power of the brazen heads but I believe a hierophant may know such things if they are asked.  It is clear Dhanaya has known our people before for how else would Akume know our language?  If it please your divine majesty, I recommend we commence further exploration.

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