Skydagger Mountains northeast of Seagate. Fourth week of the month of Reaping (late Autumn)
The rocky landscape was drenched in the bloody red light of the Ember, the large red star. It burned a dull carmine just above the horizon. The brighter and smaller white sun would be rising in a few minutes. This time of year, so near to the winter solstice and its eclipse, was always a bit dreary. In the low edges of the Skydagger Mountains the winters were brutal, and even this early snow had begun to fall. The most common tree in this area was the huge leaved parasol oak. Their tall thin trunks looked strange without the umbrella shaped leaves that gave them their names. Those leaves littered the ground, sticking to the chilly mud around the tent.
A human man rubbed sleep from his eyes and took a drink from his metal flask; the raw whiskey burned his throat with each swallow. Wincing from the taste, he moved closer to the low-burning fire. Grabbing one of the metal headed miner’s picks, he poked at the nearly extinguished coals and threw on a few parasol leaves to bring the fire back to life. When the flames ignited, he rubbed his calloused hands together; his skin was visible through the several holes worn into his woolen gloves.
After setting some beans and water into a pot and tea into another, both were hung from a pole over the fire. As he balanced the pole across the open pit, a yawn that was almost a moan came from the tent. A woman emerged, pulled her hair back, and wrapped it in a brilliant blue and yellow scarf, the only real color in the drab area. Sleep clogged her eyes as she eased over towards the fire and squatted down beside the man.
The two bore a strong resemblance: both were slim to the point of emaciation and of average height. Their hair was raven black, and what was originally dusky brown skin had been darkened almost to a coffee color by the sun and dirt. Both had sharp, almost hawkish, features and slightly hooked noses over wide mouths.
Smiling, the woman said, “Good morning, brother.” Her voice hummed in a sing-song accent.
“Good morn, Serifla,” the seated man responded. “I hope your sleep was restful and warm. I noticed you stole all of the good blankets, so I trust it was.” He grinned through his long, untamed beard. “I believe we are close. Yesterday, I found two nuggets. The gold strike could be just up the stream!” He snapped his fingers in excitement and pulled two tiny yellow flakes of metal from his pouch. Neither was much larger than a freckle, but there was no doubt: it was gold.
“Faces of the dark turn from us, Osryndas! Why did you not tell me last evening?” Serifla stood to pace and quickly rubbed the blank medallion around her neck with her thumb in an old nervous gesture. One of the medallion’s sides was dull metal and one was obsidian.
“There was much debris in the mud. I was filtering, and I stayed up long after you were asleep. They were covered, and I only found them just before Luna set for the night. I believe the tales of this area being home to our ancestors are true. There are some ruins up the stream a ways that have the look of our people. The gold may be coming from up that way.” He huddled close to the fire, his huge smile only broken by his yawns.
“So there are ruins of the ancestors?” Serifla said, her face lighting with excitement, then darkening with worry. “Did you set the offerings?”
“Of course I set the offerings! Did we not take the temple classes together? Did we not create our manikins together using mud from our family’s home along with hair and blood as does every child of our people? We have little food remaining, so the plate was nothing more than beans, but it should serve to avert the God’s attention from us.” He grumbled and stirred the beans.
Serifla ignored her brother’s childish reaction. “Let us eat and go to work. I would like to see the site of the offering.” She poured tea into the two chipped earthenware cups and offered the first to her brother with a slight bow.
“Yes, let us eat so you may inspect my work as if I were an untutored barbarian. Please, let me hurry to be scolded by she who was set to be sacrificed to the priesthood before I saved her.” Osryndas spooned a steaming portion of beans into each of the two small bowls and handed one to his sister.
“You keep saying that you saved me. Not all the children given to the temples are devoured by the old ones! You know this. The best of us are taken into the priesthood. I believe that I would have been selected.” She shook a finger in his face and gestured with the bowl of beans in the other hand.
“What tells you that you would have been the one in a hundred not eaten alive by the old ones? Your vanity? Our brother, Ptarndas, was schooled and trained to be a sacrifice. It was a grim day when he died of the violet fever. You were the oldest remaining but had not the years of training he enjoyed! I saved your life.” He huffed and grabbed up the pack that was by the tent. Throwing it over his back, the slim man walked upstream; taking the pick in his other hand, he swung it about as he talked.
Serifla took up her own pack and followed her younger brother. The sounds of their bickering echoed off the rocks. She defended, “The dark gods guided our people through all the years of the empire and guide us still! It was a privilege to be given to the temple. I learned my letters in the holy books and knew them as well as our brother, may his soul be granted rest. Now we are here trying to find ancient gold instead of living in the rich river valleys that was our home all because you brought me here in defiance of the church.”
Hours later, in silence they continued to follow the creek bed ever higher into the mountains. Both panted too hard in the thin mountain air to continue their old argument. They were of the Mar’ud who are a desert people unused to the heights. Crumbled remains of walls dotted the rocky area around them.
“Here, sister. The offerings were placed here.” Osryndas breathed hard and leaned against the unmortared and crumbling stone of what once had been a building. The rocks shifted from his weight with a low grinding sound, causing him to jump away and his sister to giggle.
His eyebrows furrowed together in irritation. “Inspect the manikins yourself. All is as sanctioned by the clergy. The book says, Set the manikin of yourself well away from habitation and leave food with it. This will often attract the attention of the dark gods and keep their glance away from you.” He quoted from the Kytabli, the holy book of the dread gods.
She scrutinized Osryndas’ offerings and spoke the words of distraction, the prayer meant to set the attention of the dread gods onto others. Those of the Mar’ud who do not avert the eyes of the dark gods of their people suffer their attentions, normally expressed in disease, ill luck, storms or undead.
Osryndas motioned to the nearby creek. “This is where I found the gold. I was panning here.”
The two set to the painstaking work of panning for gold, scooping up water and mud then slowly sifting it away until just rocks or nothing remained. They moved upriver at a crawling pace as they worked. When the Ember was nearly setting and only Sol, the smaller, white sun, remained high in the sky, the two came to a ruined tower blocking the creek. Over long years it appeared the dam that was the base of the tower had worn through, allowing the waters to escape. A small pond remained, but the water level was clearly lower than it had been. The stone was cracked and worn smooth by the stream pouring over it.
“Osryndas, maybe the gold is coming from here?” She gestured to the crack in the stone and leaned wearily on her pick as though it were a short crutch.
The slim man walked slowly around the square foundation remnant that formed part of the dam. His hand held his chin as he thought. On the far side of the pond there was another low wall which held against the water, but this one had mortared stone. He stared at it for a moment.
“Osryndas, this is a place of our people!” Serifla brushed away dust from some runes that only survived because they were deeply carved into the rock. Weathering had made them faint. “Look! These are runes in the old tongue.” She brushed more debris out of them and scowled as she tried to decipher the script, the tip of her tongue sticking out of her mouth in concentration.
“Sister, the stones where the water flows was not a dam. The dam was on the other side of the pond. I think this tower’s basement flooded over the years, and the water finally broke free. I wonder if the entire lower floor flooded? If so, that may be where the gold washed free. It could be filled with treasure!” He gestured excitedly and ran over to his sister who traced the runes in the earth.
“I thought you said it was filled with water?” She said quietly.
“Ha, wench! It could have been filled with treasure before it flooded!” He fetched his pick and began to chop at a section of wall that looked slightly sunken. It took several minutes, and Sol was nearing the horizon when he broke through; rocks tumbled away from the hole with a grinding crash. The stale air coming from the darkness smelled of mold.
“Brother, don’t go in there.” Serifla said in a toneless voice.
“Why ever not?” He poked his pick into the hole and used it to rake more stone out and enlarge the opening. A moldering bag fell out with it. Dull yellow coins spilled out in to the failing light of day.
“Coins! We’re rich! Look at this Serifla! Gold showers from the hole!” He capered like a loon, throwing coins up into the air.
“Brother, come away from there. I don’t think we should be tampering with any of this.” She approached her brother while looking about nervously.
Two humanoid arms wrapped in dark molded linens shot out of the darkness and grasped Osryndas’ head. Dark lines of corruption began to cover his skin and he screamed with a throat tearing sound. A gravelly voice, rusty as if seldom used, growled from the tower’s shadows, “When is it?” Osryndas’ screams drowned out the question.
Serifla also screamed and took a step forward before freezing in panic. Two glowing orange dots floated in the darkness at about the height of a man. The creature stepped into the dim light of sunset. It was of human proportion but desiccated and diseased. Its hands came away from Osryndas’ head, and he fell to the ground twitching, making a high pitched whining noise.
“When is it!” the sepulchral voice again shouted.
Serifla fell to the ground in a boneless kowtow, frantically struggling at the medallion around her neck. She fumbled with it, turned the dark side out, and held it before her. “Old one, I serve. I serve!”
Beside her what was once Osryndas twitched again and stood, face expressionless and slack. The blood that had seeped from his nose and eyes went black, and he moaned.