The dawn broke in the east. The ruins stretched Across the horizon. The city was still a day’s ride away, but its presence loomed solemn before her. If asked, she couldn’t say why she was drawn there. There was a drive in her, some irrational calling that inspired her to leave her clan behind and seek out the remnants of the ancients. They were gone, she knew, a thousand years gone, or more. The stories claimed they consumed themselves. The stories told of wonder and magic, but also arrogance and cruelty. It wasn’t the ancients she was seeking out, she feared them, and the diseases they carried, more than she feared anything else. No, it was their magic, their potential. Potential they had squandered in their myopic ignorance.
She knew that she would make camp once more before reaching the ruins. Perhaps she would make it to the outskirts, but that seemed overly hopeful. In the budding light of the early morn she broke down her tent, musing about the possibility of setting it up amidst the broken structures of a race reclaimed by the soil.
The west wind rustled the trees of the woods around her. From the top of the hill where she had made her camp the ruins were clear and omnipresent. Below, back in the heart of the woodland, they would return to quiet place in her mind where dreams and terrors thrived. There the wind would be mitigated as well. The scrub trees atop the hill did nothing to dull its edge, which this morning was a cutting chill, seasonable for autumn, but unwelcome just the same.
Behind her, her dar’rak chirped peacefully. A bi-peddle beast with massive legs, its feet were that of a bird, three forward facing long toes and one rear facing all ending in dagger like talons. Two short arms jutted out from where its chest transitioned to its neck and ended with three finger hands tipped with razor sharp claws. Its body was covered in soft feathers and a saddle perched at the base of its thick muscular neck, strapped to its back, just behind what could be thought of as its shoulders. The beast stood twice as tall as her at its head, much of its height was its neck that bent around like a snake giving the creature immense reach with its raptor like beak. It was a fearsome creature, a predator through and through, wild and uncontrollable by all but its soul rider. The dar’rak had been just an egg and her just a small child when the two were joined. From then on they were inseparable, as was the way of her clan.
A soul rider and their mount were soulmates, of a fashion. The two were bound in a way that was closer than any other beings could bind. It transcended the physical and emotional levels of traditional relationships and was a true blending of soul and mind. Such a blending could only be done when both souls were new to the world. The infant to be bound to the beast was held up a year in her clan to assure the dominance of the older soul, but also to assure nothing of earthly learning contaminated the mind of the beast. Timing was critical. Other clans bound the two at the moment of birth, but this lead to a struggle for control and the child did not always win. In such cases the child became the tool of the beast, adopting the animal’s traits and forgoing the wisdom of the clan. These relationships were often short lived, as the beasts soon found children too weak and feeble for their more natural predatory predispositions and often attempted to eat the children. This ended badly for both, as the binding was a mortal knot, the death of one leading to the death of the other.
With the tent stowed in her pack and her morning meal finished, she gathered her things she turned towards the dar’rak. The saddle was head high, but the beast obeyed by thought. It would crouch when she wished so she might mount more easily, and it did so now. The stirrup of the saddle just touching the ground as it did and she slid her foot into it while swinging her leg over in one fluid motion. The beast rose as soon as she did and without another moment they were off, sprinting towards the rising sun, the ruins, and whatever else awaited them.
None of her clan had ever dared chance the ruins, at least not in her life time. While her people roamed the mountains and valleys to the west and at times would come as close as she was now, never had they wished to tempt the gods that brought devastation down upon the mighty. It was said to be a cursed place, swallowed up by the mind sickness that consumed its people. The sickness was thought to be the gods wrath for daring to rival their power.
She did not know about that. Magic seemed such a fanciful thing in her life of routine. She knew that the the gods must possess it, but there was never any sign of mortals wielding anything more than hollow tricks, and none that ever called upon their powers when blade threatened their lives. Still, she was drawn to the ruins, to the lost secrets of the ancients, magic, trick, gods’ curse, whatever, she had no choice.
Her clan was divided by her decision. Many had thought she’d bring the curse upon them all, but many and more believed it was the gods’ will pulling her, whether as sacrifice or savior, none could say. The journey itself, up until now, did not trouble her. These lands had been her home all her life. The hunting trails and shelter spots were apart of her earliest memories. Now as she neared the ruins, crossed the threshold from familiar to unknown, there was a sense of fear growing within her. Her dar’rak felt it as well. The subtle shift in behavior. The edgy mannerisms that none apart from her could notice. Perhaps this was a cursed place, but it made no matter. While the fear built with each passing mile, so too did the need to go on. The calling was stronger now than she had ever known it, and while the fear itched in the back of her mind, no doubt ever arose, only a sense of confidence that this thing needed to be done, even while the thing itself remained shrouded in mystery.
It was evenfall when the last vestiges of the forest began to give way to the wasteland of ruins. In truth, the last few days had not been forests at all, scrub forests maybe, but nothing resembling the prime lands of her clan. The trees that accompanied her were puny stunted things, none thicker than her arm was long. Compared to the giants that lay west, these were little more than saplings. It was said that even the trees bore the curse of the gods, that the land itself was turned wretched by the gods fury. She knew no other reason why the trees would be so humbled here, and assumed it must be true, but that only made her wonder more why the gods would call her forth.
With the darkness she decided to stopped and make camp. By now there were no trees to speak of, only scraggly bushes and petrified stumps. It seemed whatever cursed this place, even the sacred act of decay was deprived the fallen. Death lingered here, a disquieting thought for a people who held that returning to the soil was a most holy and celebrated of final acts. She wondered if sleep would come for her tonight, or if the trapped spirits of this land would haunt her in the darkness. Her dar’rak chirped, sensing her unease, it nuzzled her shoulder with its beak, seeking comfort as much as it sought to provide it.
“I know Sha’let, I feel them too,” she said as she rubbed the beast’s massive beak. It was not the spirits that she felt, but the eyes upon her. Eyes of the living.
She was not alone.