Monday, March 8, 2010
The High Tombs of Yuddoth, Episode Two
His eyes snapped open.
It was dark. He was alone in the cold and it was the middle of the night-time.
No, it was right at the very crack of dawn. The rosy glow of Taleed was just starting to burn through the dancing aurora of the night shimmers that flickered like so much witch-fire along the uppermost rim of the Great Rift. He'd never been this close to such otherworldly beauty before. It almost took his breath away only the air was too thin and his lungs felt like they were bruised inside and out. He started to get up then thought better of it. First he had to inspect his body and his situation before he blindly started another rockslide or twisted a fractured limb that was perhaps mercifully numb at the moment. He also didn't need to start bleeding all over again either. He was weak enough as it was.
Slowly, carefully, Skran passed his hands along his sides, hips and legs until he was able to determine if anything was broken or otherwise injured. Then he started feeling the icy rocks and coarse gravel around him. He could barely see anything in the pre-dawn gloom, but his hands were able to feel that he was in a kind of notch of some sort. He could get back to his feet without too much of a risk, so he delicately extricated his legs from the rubble and stood up in order to better take his bearings. His head throbbed painfully and he doubled over as his much-abused stomach voided itself onto the cold gravel. Skran wiped half-frozen tears from his face and sat back on his heels once the heaving and spasms had passed. He was in rough shape.
It was cold. Damnably cold. Frost was everywhere and his hair was stiff like delicately fried noodles. He took stock of his situation for the third time in half as many minutes and caught himself. This was no good. He'd freeze to death soon, frostbite was already working its way into his fingers and toes. He had to do something, but other than turn back and throw himself on the questionable mercies of a Lord who had already wrongly accused him of crimes he'd never committed just to secure his services as a tutor to his lumpy and unhandsome children without having to pay the going union rates just did not seem appealing. Hallucinations were said to make the passing more pleasant. Skran smirked at the thought of him, of all people him, the skeptical scholar of cold, hard facts escaping by way of fantasy, figments and exactly the wild imaginings he'd railed against all through his student years. He had won his way into the circle of rationalists with his hand-me-down knife. He had won his freedom with his hard-earned knowledge of the nature of true rationality, or at least the long-buried and suppressed applications of such rationality as he took to be the Truth in his naive youth, to wit; he had won an argument in such a way that no one could touch him without losing all credibility and claim to rationality and thus would become themselves an open target for their fellows. It had been a major triumph long ago, now it was but the prelude to a career soon to end almost as harshly as the fate he had so cleverly escaped. No, not escaped. Delayed. Maybe the grim fatalisti were on to somehting with all their ponderous talk of fate and inevitability.
"Bah! " Skran spat into the thin wind and lurched unsteadily to his feet. Fighting against nausea and vertigo, he looked around him in the rich lavender gloom and started walking. He wouldn't let academic rivals stop him from his pursuit of the truth when they were standing in front of him with knives drawn, he wasn't going to just roll over and let the cold, a cliff and some inanimate rocks kill him without a fight.
Picking his way along the treacherous skree, Skran followed what seemed to be faint game trails and gullies eroded into the gravel from the periodic snow-melts that passed for Spring in this dreary region. He walked and limped, crawled and climbed as best he could in the cold and constantly sliding pebbles that threatened to cast him down from the heights like some shadow of an ancient, vengeful deity bent on the destruction of some potential rival.
He zig-zagged slowly, painfully going along the fractured and fissured area just below the sheer and unclimbable cliffs that led straight up to the very Rim itself. Skran was determined to not go back, nor to go down until he was well past the sentries and patrols that would just take him back to Lord Vasco in chains or worse. As long as he kept moving, he was free and that was something worth fighting for. It seemed like he was always fighting to be free, from the day he ran away from the circus. He wasn't about to stop now, not for anyone, and absolutely double-damned not for Lord Vasco. The very thought of that smug thug of a Lord gave Skran the angry energy to go on, to keep moving. He was determined to make good his escape.
Eventually exhaustion took its toll and Skran flopped down where he was and just tried to breathe. It was slightly easier. There was less frost on his thin jacket and the sun was finally peeking over the Eastern Rim flooding everything with amber, rose and gold. In its own harsh and hostile way the place had a kind of beauty to it. It was too good a place for the likes of Lord Vasco, but then this wasn't Vasco's domain. This was Yuddoth. The haunted province of ancient reliquaries and obscure tombs dating back to the very earliest societies that had come to Riskail from lands and towns far across the twin seas of both time and space. It galled Skran deeply that he might die in such a place of unrepentent romanticism and rampant mythologizing. It was the sort of place that affronted his carefully cultivated dignity as an itinerant scholar. He knew better than the ignorant sloat farmers down in the isolated and backwards valleys along the Rim. He wasn't some moronic poet drunk with absinthe and smitten with his own reflection. He was a thinker, a hard-headed realist, a man of science and literacy who could read over a hundred languages and speak passably in dozens. He has made a study of history that had challenged many a pre-conceived and popular notion of what was acceptable and true. Several of his most dramatic scars had come from defending his various theses and he had almost been assassinated before he could deliver his dissertation. His quick reflexes and some measure of luck, whatever that truly was, had not only spared his life from the final, sudden lunge of his own professor who died on the chamber floor instead, but had also revealed a heinous and despicable conspiracy that threatened to tarnish the Academy's cherished reputation. Skran was given a choice; take the higest honors that the board of regents could bestow upon him and leave immediately never to return, or stay and be deliberately and knowingly framed for the wanton murder of his professor, a kindly man who had never done the slightest harm to even one of the many feral cats that prowled the campus as though they were themselves the true regents of the place.
Skran took their certificates, awards, degrees and honors and left. It had been the fastest matriculation ceremony in the history of the venerable and august institution. He had no end of offers to help finance his travels away from Devukarsha and shrewdly he once again played each of the regents and their representatives and servants off of one another until he left on a steam barge for Mukharra with a significant fortune in his bags.
They just could not get rid of him fast enough. He tended to have that effect on people.
He roused himself and got moving again. Staying put would only lead to falling back asleep and dying of exposure or getting eaten by some highlands predator, if anything was ever so desperately hungry as to prowl such bitterly deserted wastes. But there were the birds who perched higher up. Where there are birds, there are things that eat birds.
"At least it would be a damned sight warmer in the belly of a beast." Skran muttered to himself. All alone, with no one to hear, why should he care if he talked to himself. Much like the titles and formal accolades that had been shoved upon him by the regents out of guilt at what their colleague had done, and their culpability in a botched doctoral assassination, it just didn't matter. Had the bastard succeeded, then things would have been different. No doubt the regents would have sold his body to one of the more discrete outcaste-undead sects that ruled the sewers, or perhaps to a rogue golemista or some unsanctioned necromancer doing research none of those dried-up old prigs would ever think of doing themselves.
"HA!" Skran barked in disdain. The sound echoed and he realized that as he had been day-dreaming he'd come to a place where the cliff-face split and opened up into a small defile, possibly even a miniature box canyon of sorts. He could see the frosty tips of both coniferous and deciduous trees ahead of him. He was up higher than they could reach with their top-most branches. A surge of relief shivered through his battered body and with renewed will and purpose Skran forced himself back into motion. He needed to find a way down into the defile, one that wouldn't end in his falling to his death after all, if there was one.
It took the better part of the morning, but eventually Skran found a way down into the little valley. It was warmer and sheltered from the wind by both impressively looming and heavily weathered and tumbled walls of fractured basalt, limestone and other rock-types that he couldn't recall the names of, and tall, oh so tall trees. Even better he discovered a tiny trickle of snow-melt that formed a small pool of ice cold, clear water and he drank his fill greedily. Satisfied and content in a way he hadn't known in months, Skran stood up and wiped the water from his unshaven face with the back of his lacerated and bruised hand.
"Now all I need is some food..."
"My thoughts exactly." purred a sphinx's husky voice from across the pool.
For the briefest of moments Skran and the sphinx stared into one another's eyes. Then as if on some pre-arranged signal, they both sprang into motion. Skran ran for his life. The sphinx ran for its supper.