And the Serpent of the White City.
Hey. I dredged this story up from the archives. Remember the Sablecroft story I wrote and published on the blog? The button below is a link. Anyway, I wrote this after–putting it at about a thirteen months ago–that story. They’re kind of connected in a way. I tried to leave the story the way I wrote it, so there are at least one of comma splice and a couple times the paragraph topic runs amok. Well, I hope you enjoy.
Carne ducked under a horizontal branch. It did little to defend against the pelting droplets of rain. He looked up at the mosaic of green leaves on the limb. As he did, his blond hair dipped back and released a load of water onto his neck. It didn’t matter, his jerkin was as wet as his boots. And his boots were soaking. He breathed in. He did love the fresh scent of the falling rain and the smell of the broken branches.
He looked around. The world of enhanced green spelled independence for him. He was on his own. And, people were relying on him. His family. Carne fingered his bow. The hunter. That was what he was. He shrugged his shoulders, feeling the heavy weight of his quiver. Hunting was his thing. His family owned a large farm. His sisters would make clothes, weave baskets, and cook among other things. His brothers, they did all the heavy work. Bred the horses, built the houses, farmed and raised goats. While Carne’s brothers could farm their own goats, they couldn’t deny their love for wild deer, hares or whatever else Carne could track down. So, they were content to let him earn his keep hunting.
He sniffed the air, as if it would do any good. He had never ventured this far south. Earlier that year after his winter hunting trip, he had appeared back home dragging the flesh of a snowy bison. They loved that. This year, he was determined to one up himself. He had to get something bigger, better. It was spring now, and the animals were stirring. He had anticipated that, but he hadn’t expected the rain. It had been pouring for the last several nights. The ground was soft. That meant the leaves wouldn’t crackle when he stepped on them. But it also meant he would be wet for the next week or until he discovered his game. Now, he was itching to find shelter for the night. Carne pushed himself up. The longer it took the longer he would be in the rain. He began to walk soundlessly forward.
He passed through the woods, carrying further on south. He wondered if anyone had ever even traveled this far south. He kept his bow ready and arrow tensed. There was almost never time to draw the arrow, so he just kept one on the bow. He slogged onward, though the small streams and around trees. The forest was pine, something that he hadn’t expected, and sprawled as far as he could see. Traveling was dangerous in the realm, but he felt confident. He was well trained. In his belt was his stout dagger and on his back was a full quiver. Carne spent all his time at home practicing with his bow or making arrows. Nobody minded. His brothers wouldn’t begrudge him if he didn’t help harvest, but they did mind if he missed a shot while hunting down a goat stalking forest lion. Carne looked forward, the rain fall had lightened and now only a thin mist of drops swirled around his pale skin. He could make out a strange coloring in the woods up ahead. It was white. He moved toward it.
As he grew nearer the objects, the forest suddenly gave way to a glade. It was a hamlet. A walled city. The walls were high and watch towers rose up every so often. Inside the open gates he could see houses and open faced shops. Large friendly windows peered out from second stories. The front lawns were full of blooming flowers. There were many fruit trees blossoming and some already laden with early fruits. Most dazzlingly, the whole city was a tan white. It seemed as if it were carved of limestone, probably some kind of plaster.
There was one thing. The city was dead. There were no people. The walls had no men patrolling. The gates were open, but they hung from their hinges that seemed to have long ago corroded. The houses had gaping black holes for windows and doors. The lawns and flower beds were overrun with seeding weeds. The path to the city was cobbled, mostly sprinkled with small weeds poking stubbornly through.
Carne cocked his head. He didn’t understand it. Maybe there were some people around in the ghost town. He just wanted to get dry. The rain fell faster as he strode through the wide gates and down the main street. He could smell the flowers and blossoms, but he smelt no fire, no cooking food, no city smells. He heard nothing, save the wind, no small children playing, no venders yelling their wares, no laundry snapping from the high alleys. Carne knelt down and felt the stone he walked on. He closed his eyes and tried to understand, as if the very stones would cry out to him. They didn’t.
He moved on, feeling for the bone handle of his hunting knife. After a distance, he found a crossway. The street made an intersection, splitting into four roads, dividing the city into four quarters. He could see at the end of each a gate. Two were open, the other closed.
“Is anyone here?!” He yelled down the street. Only his voice responded in an echo. Nothing more.
He turned back and made his way to the first gate. He chose a house and knelt down in the doorway. The door had long since turned to rubble. He slimed his hair back, sweat mixing with the perpetual rainwater. He scrutinized the entryway. Nothing had passed through the doorway in at least a season. He sighed, turned around and stared at the forlorn and forsaken city. The young hunter didn’t know what to make of it… except maybe, some shelter.
Half an hour later, Carne was seated in front of a roaring blaze. His leather jerkin was hung up on a stick and finally drying out. His pant seat was a little wet still but standing in front of the fire could handle that. Rotating occasionally, the body of a large hare was laid across the fire. He had shot it earlier that day. The only knowledge of plants he had were that some could make meat taste phenomenal, and others could make him throw up. The rabbit was coated in a variety of spices and a little oil he carried with him. Beside it, some sliced fruit was warming. He sank back. He had found a two-story building with a small chimney and a copious amount of crumbled but dry wood. He guessed it must have at one point been a carpenter’s shop. He had found a wedge for chipping under some wood. He hadn’t gone upstairs yet, but it was only a little past noon and he wanted to uncover the mystery of the city before sunset. What was its name? Where did everybody go? Why had he never heard of this abandoned city?
He unstrung his meal and devoured it. Now he was thirsty. Carne laughed at himself and jumped up. He cleaned his knife and tucked it back in his belt. He swept up his bow and quiver and walked out of the door. The rain had abated for the time. He strode back toward the four-way intersection, wondering where to begin his search. He wanted to check out each gate and gather any information he could find. As he cut through alleys, he began to put together a picture. Maybe it was obvious, or maybe it came with being a skilled tracker, but he could see a picture. The clues were subtle. A broken chair missing a rung. A crestfallen empty chest. It bore testament to the slow evacuation.
He had found his way to the end of the street. This one had a closed gate. He mounted an integrated ladder and clambered to the top. He looked out of the fallen city. He could see the sunset reaching through the tall pines. He examined the quadrant city. Near the far side he could see a clear area that looked important.
Not knowing what else to do, he descended from his perch and set out. The empty buildings were eerie, and the lack of all life was foreboding. In all of his ventures, he had never encountered something so lifeless. He hadn’t even seen a dormouse.
Soon he came to the area. A deep hole sunk into the ground, about thirty feet in diameter, and staggered downward in a series of large steps. It appeared to be an arena of some sort. He dropped down the first step, about a two-foot drop. It was as hard as stone, the steps were rounded, like the massive body of a worm embedded in the soil. Strange, engraved patterns spiraled around the curves. He counted as he pattered down them. Twelve. Carne landed at the bottom. The diameter had decreased to about five feet. His boots shifted in the uneven sand. It was sand. And it was dry. He spun in a circle, his feet kicking up white dust, trying to use his hunter’s sense to understand. But he couldn’t.
It made no sense. There was no logic in it. Offset in the city, a hole in the ground. A hole that was too small to be an arena and too large to be a crop cellar. It could have been a cistern, but cisterns had water running to them.
He clambered over the etched stone back out to the street level. A well-worn path ran in the weeds around the cistern. Around the back, opposite to the street, was a large stone structure. He could hear the sound of water. The hunter pulled himself up the stone wall. Over its side, and nearly overflowing, he could see a large pool of fluctuating water. The crystal water poured in through the wall from a grate a couple yard away. There was a large pool which it had filled and ran over a low wall into an irrigation canal. He stood on the wall and began to walk around the circumference. He could see that at one time the water rode past the stones and into the dry cistern. There was a wooden door, running the height of pool, that was barred shut. He tried to step over it, but as nimble as Carne was, his foot slipped. He caught himself but his swinging leg kicked away the bar to the door. It flew open. The waters surged. He regained the wall and watched as the waterfall flooded into the cistern, filling it nearly to the top. After the pool had drained, he kicked the door shut and barred it, wishing to leave everything as he found it. Only then did he notice an inscription by the door.
Life in mortal fear is death.
The words were deep and inscribed well. But the meaning was far more drastic. Or not. Maybe it meant something. Carne shook it off, he couldn’t tell. The young hunter looked toward the restless water churning in the cistern. He failed to notice that the water level had already dropped several inches. He moved on to check other places. Carne knew he should have been hunting, but he couldn’t think of it if he wanted to. He wished he could uncover the mystery of the ancient civilization. He shook his head. It was getting dark. Time to find shelter. It was a long walk back to his previous building where he had built a fire, so he found another.
Carne leaped up the steps of a large house as thunder was beginning to roll outside. He was mistaken, it was a courthouse of some sort. He stepped inside and looked around. He could make out runes of some sort on the far wall. He stepped closer. The inscriptions were deep and it seemed painted, but he couldn’t tell what they said because of the dim light.
He turned and piled some rubble onto the center of the floor. He lit it up.
Now he could see. Scrawled across the wall, was a collection of painted and engraved murals. He turned to the first, on the most left-hand side. It was a picture of the city. People were in the city.
He raised an eyebrow and looked at the next. There was now a shape in front of the city, a long, black serpentine body. In the flickering light, Carne ran his fingers across it, wondering if the picture was accurate in size per proportion to the city. If it was, it had to be as long as a felled pine tree. The next picture showed the bodies of many people, definitely dead. He moved on. A pool of water. Then, the serpent in the water. The water was gone in the next and all that was left was a hole in the ground. The serpent was still in it.
Carne rocked back on his heels. The next picture was a cloud of purple and sea green, portraying horror. Crouched beneath it was the coiled body of a black serpent. Again, the words were written.
Life in mortal fear is death.
Carne spun around and looked at the black of the empty windows. He felt for his dagger. The serpent was there in the city, at the cistern. Could water loose it? Had he?
He knew there was only one way to find out. He had to go see. Carne burst onto the street and took off running in the direction. He nocked an arrow. Soon he knelt before the cistern. It was empty of water. And the serpentine coils. All that was left was soil. No stonelike steps. He heard a rattling behind him and turned, arrow beside his eye, ready to leap.
But the hunter… had become the hunted.
To be continued…