Thursday, August 09, 2012

On the Advisability of Obeying Signs

I suppose you must be wondering where I've been for the past few weeks.

I apologize for the prolonged silence. It's far from the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last - but once again, I have been beyond the reach of postbirds.

The caravan had been traveling for a week or two when we first saw the stones. They were small enough at first - just the occasional spire and pillar of wind-sculpted sandstone, striped in layers of brown and gold, protruding from the sand. Desert gargoyles crouched on top of some of them. The stone-skinned beasts sat perfectly still, blending in so well that none of us noticed them at first. It wasn't until one of the vultures trailing the caravan stopped to rest on top of a rock, and the rock shot out a long, frog-like tongue and snapped it up with a squawk and a puff of black feathers, that we even realized the gargoyles were there.

We never saw any gargoyles that were even close to large enough to eat people. All the same, we watched the rocks much more carefully after that.

The farther we went, the larger the stones were. After a day or two of travel, they had become wider than the spaces between them, and we found ourselves wandering through a system of canyons. Like the spires, they were banded in layers of yellow and golden brown, with the occasional vein of deep black running through. Some stream or river - long gone now - must have taken centuries to carve the canyons, digging grain by grain through the layers of sandstone.

Among the group of scientists traveling with the caravan, the favored theory is that the canyons must have been home to an unusually active aquifrax, or some other type of water spirit. Perhaps more than one. The regular flow of water could never have produced anything as complex as this labyrinth of canyons.

I'm still not sure of the exact nature of the scientists' work. Are they geologists? Archaeologists? Historians? Experts in unusual vision? Some combination of all of these? I can only guess.

Mirenza, the avian in the group, has tried once or twice to explain their work to me, but we don't share quite enough words yet to convey something that complex. Geolarchaeolinguistic terminology is still beyond my ability to comprehend in English, much less in Amrat.

Still, I'm learning. Between Mirenza and Karlishek, I know enough Amrat by now to be, if not fluent, at least coherent.

Karlishek, as it happens, shares my love of comparative mythology. We've spent many hours discussing the myths and folk tales of various lands. We've talked about the daisy-chained strings of stories that form the Book of a Thousand Mirrors, which I've only read in translation; the Epic of Orbadon, which Karlishek has only read in translation; the tall tales of the Railway Regions, which seem to make a habit of pushing the boundaries of credibility, so that no matter how far-fetched they are, you can never be entirely certain that they're not true; the strange, unresolved half-stories of Mollogou, which seem to consider endings optional and questions best left unanswered…

Being an insect, Karlishek's face is not flexible in the same way a vertebrate's is, but I'm beginning to be able to read his expression in the way he holds his antennae. I'm not sure where his voice comes from. It's not from his mouth; unlike me, he's capable of speaking perfectly clearly with his mouth full.

On the day after I sent my last letter, Karlishek and I were sitting beneath the canopy of one of the wagons, comparing the English and the Amrat variations of the Tale of the Three Brothers. There are an almost endless number of these - stories in which the third brother succeeds where the older two fail, often due to their foolishness or arrogance. To the best of my knowledge, these stories show up in every culture and every language. In comparison, similar stories about sisters usually only have two. Quite often, they are stepsisters: one good or clever, the other wicked or foolish.

Karlishek sees this as an indication that there are twice as many foolish men as foolish women. He says that his experience has generally proved this to be correct. We were debating this when a woman peered around the frame of the wagon.

"Are you Mirenza's friends?" she asked, in a voice so soft it was barely audible. "She said to find a beetle and a reptile talking about stories."

That sounded like us. My current reptilian appearance has persisted for over a year now, which has been quite convenient in the Desert.

"She needs you," the woman continued, pointing back the way we'd come. "Back there. She says it's an emergency."

It was unclear, if it was an emergency, why Mirenza had sent for us in particular instead of simply shouting to whoever was nearby. We went anyway.

We arrived, somewhat out of breath, at the end of a small side canyon. Mirenza was standing in front of a circular slab of sandstone leaning against the wall, tracing a series of worn symbols carved in the center.

"Finally!" She gave us a quick, excited smile before turning back to the stone. "I thought you'd never get here. Look at this!"

"It's a rock." Karlishek's voice was flat.

"What's the emergency?" I panted. If there was one, it had yet to show itself.

"You see this?" Mirenza pointed to the glyphs on the stone. "It says, 'keep out.' Come on, help me open it."

This, I suppose, is the reasoning of an archaeologist. We've known Mirenza long enough by now to know that it was pointless to argue.

The base of the stone was covered in sand, which we had to dig out of the way before it would move at all. The woman who had fetched us - she hadn't mentioned her name - helped as well. Oddly, she wasn't out of breath at all. I didn't give this much thought at the time. With the sand out of the way, Karlishek and I put our shoulders to the stone and shoved, while Mirenza - light and agile with her hollow avian bones - leaped up onto a nearby ledge and pushed it from the top.

Fortunately, the sandstone was relatively light; if it had been a slab of granite, I doubt the four of us together could have budged it at all. As it was, we only managed to open a narrow gap before the stone ground to a halt and stubbornly refused to move any further.

Even that small gap was enough to get a glimpse of what was beyond. The stone had been covering a natural archway in the stone. Another canyon wall continued on the other side, smooth and banded with the same golden brown.

There was a window carved into it.

Distracted by this, we were foolish enough to take our eyes off of the wagons going by behind us, and it took us some time to notice that we could no longer hear the sound of the runners sliding over the sand. When we turned around, the caravan was gone. Not only that, but when we ventured down several of the nearby passages, they all led to dead ends. The canyons had shifted position, as mazes do.

There was nowhere to go but through the door we'd opened.

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