Ties That Bind: Part Eight
Harwood never liked Sakhmet. On past assignments, he'd had to pass through it once or twice, and he wasn't so keen on returning. The hot weather, sandy scenery, and shouting merchants hadn't left a good impression on him. Now all he saw it as was a city to rest in, and the one place that held the cure to his curse.
Trekking through the dunes of the Desert took most of the day. Crossing into its borders and finding their way through the vast sands hadn't been an easy task. Harwood was feeling steadily worse, making the journey all the harder. Layla did his best to comfort him, but it wasn't of much use. One night of rest in a damp cave hadn't been enough for the Eyrie.
Close to collapsing when they arrived at the city, the first thing Harwood set out to do was find an inn. He remembered the layout of the city enough to find one fairly quickly. Layla still had a bit of money in her reclaimed bag, and some of it was used to buy them both rooms for the night. Harwood immediately went to his room to rest, sleeping for nearly a day before he was able to be woken. A knock at the door was what pulled him from his sleep, telling him it was finally time to get up.
Harwood opened the door to his room to see Layla, awake and chipper, holding a lumpy burlap sack in her arms. He gave her a groggy stare. “Go away.”
“Nice to see you up,” she said, marching inside. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I should be sleeping.”
“Well, you look like dung. Get over here and eat something.”
The Eyrie was reluctant, contemplating throwing her out and going back to bed. That was until he remembered just how hungry he actually was. It felt like forever since he'd last eaten.
Harwood sat at the small table that his room provided, running a hand over his face. “You bought food?”
“I got whatever was cheapest, since we're pretty much broke. That doesn't mean this is all completely edible, though.” Turning over the sack, she dumped its contents out onto the table, a wide variety of things tumbling out. Most of it dissolved into clumps of sand, but some of the food stayed in one piece. The food that had survived didn't appear to be very appetizing.
Harwood snatched up the first thing he saw and started eating, regardless of what it was. Layla stared at him incredulously. “Harwood, you're eating a grackle bug.”
“And it's not even cooked.”
He swallowed. “Would you rather have me starve to death?”
“Forget it,” she huffed, averting her eyes and taking a bite out of a ripe tchea.
When the Eyrie had satisfied his hunger, he idly gazed out the window. Down on the streets, the bustle of city life rambled below, merchant's cries drifting to his ears. Harwood wished he had as much energy, but was starting to accept that no amount of sleep would ease the curse's effects.
He blinked, bringing himself back to his room. “Where's the sorceress?”
“I've asked around, but no one really knows where she is. She's just here. I'm thinking that she's in a quieter part of the city, since people are wary of magic. She'd be hidden.”
Harwood scowled. “I don't have time to scour Sakhmet.”
Layla sighed, leaning back in her chair. It was hard to think up a solution when she was in such an unfamiliar place. However, a grin soon made its way over the Gnorbu's face, an answer dawning on her.
“Then I guess we'll just have to find someone who does know where she is.”
With nothing but Layla's idea to go on, the two found themselves in the heat of the day, wandering through the dark alleyways of Sakhmet with nothing more than a poorly-drawn map. There were a number of passageways that led to the parts of the city that were better left unvisited, and the Eyrie was soon fed up.
“Are you sure this map is right?” he said, turning the parchment over in aggravation.
“How would I know?” she quipped. “I know that Wocky person wasn't an artist, but it can't be that hard to read. Weren't you trained for this kind of stuff?”
Harwood glared at her. “Weren’t you told to keep quiet? We're out of options.”
“Let's just keep looking, then.”
Harwood grunted, exhausted. The last thing he wanted to do go through every corner of the city. The curse was taking its tolls, leeching off of his strength at every given opportunity. It was even too developed for Layla to lessen its effects with spells. Still, if it meant finding the cure, he’d shove through somehow.
The two tried another alleyway, one they had yet to explore. The further they walked down it, the more Harwood was able to sense a strange foreboding. The path was dark and narrow, more so than the others they had gone down before. The shadows seemed to shift and float around them, and there was something in the air that demanded his attention. It was a presence he'd grown to know all too well
“Magic,” he muttered, eyes narrowing.
Layla noticed him tense. “You feel it, too? Something must be going on here. A good sorcerer’s power shouldn't feel this sinister.”
“Then whose magic is it?” Harwood tried to see if anyone was at the end of the path, but it was too dark to make out anything more than a few meters ahead.
“It might still be hers. Think about how much she went through to keep her home hidden. Maybe this is just a spell to ward off people. We have to keep going.”
The Eyrie felt compelled to disagree, but she had a point. Cautious, they continued walking through the murk, their footsteps loud in the silence.
The deeper they plunged, the stranger Harwood felt. The abundance of magic in the air made it seem tangible, almost thick as he breathed it in. He tried to make sense of it, but the more he thought about it, the more muddled his mind became. It took longer than he would have guessed possible, but he soon realized that whatever magic this place possessed had an intoxicating effect. The Eyrie only noticed when it was too late, his movements slowed by the spell that infected the air.
“Stop.” The defender halted, grabbing Layla's wrist. “This place...”
The Gnorbu trembled, placing a hand to her forehead, unable to think straight. “A trap?”
Harwood turned to meet the new voice as fast as his body would allow. Behind them, walking out from the shadows, was a Wocky. He showed little emotion, but there was an air of satisfaction and amusement about him.
“You,” Layla hissed, realizing him to be the author of their faulty map. “What do you want?”
Harwood gave her a fleeting glance, warning her against any foolish outbursts. By the time she'd spoken, reinforcements had appeared, flanking the Wocky's sides. They blocked the only way out; one wrong move and who knew what may happen. The Eyrie doubted he could simply fly out of this one, too dazed to string very coherent thoughts together.
“Very good.” The Wocky observed Harwood's stance. “You know when you've been beaten. I admire that. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop you from trying.”
Harwood made an effort to ignore the airborne magic, its effects beginning to further dull his senses. He hooked his steely gaze on the man, trying to keep himself composed. “Who are you?”
“Hm.” The Wocky chuckled to himself. “You really don't know? Not even a guess? I suppose names can wait. But for now, I'm afraid, you're my temporary hostage.”
It was hard for Layla to remember what had happened after that. The Wocky had shown up, said a few words, and then nothing more. The magic in the air seemed to have drugged her, numbing her to all else. She could vaguely recall someone pinning her hands behind her back, but it was all a blurred mass of memories in her head.
The Gnorbu didn't come to her senses till she found herself being tossed into a dank cellar. She winced as she fell hard on the ground, hearing the iron door slam shut behind her. It took effort to string together thoughts, but the magic didn't clog the air so much now. As soon as she was able to realize what had happened, Layla froze, eyes darting to and fro.
Where was she? Where was Harwood? The Eyrie was nowhere to be seen, and by the looks of it, Layla wasn't going anywhere fast. The cellar she'd be thrown into was a dark, small room, and the one exit available was locked tight. The floor was dusted with straw and loose dirt, and the only light she had to see by streamed through a high, barred window. As her eyes grew accustomed to the weak lighting, Layla discovered that she'd overlooked the most vital thing in the room.
There was another detainee in the cellar, a tall, once-elegant desert Kyrii. She looked exhausted and malnourished, but her gilded bangles and plum-colored garments revealed that she was of high status. Her robes seemed much too big for her now, draped limply over her thin, sunken frame.
Upon witnessing Layla's noisy arrival, the Kyrii didn't show much of a reaction. Her blue eyes cracked open, perhaps with some hope, or just bored curiosity. Her features went from blank to confused, staring intently at the one across from her. She began to sit up, but she lacked the strength, her effort fruitless.
“You,” she said, her voice raspy. “You're Layla, aren't you?”
“Yes,” the Gnorbu replied hesitantly. “Who are you?”
The Kyrii's eyes skirted across the floor. “I am Isis, sorcerer of the Lost Desert. Or, I once was... I doubt I'll be around for much longer.”
Layla's eyes widened. “You're Isis? What's going on here? What happened?” She had so many questions that it was hard not to burden the poor Kyrii with more.
“I can't quite remember when it was, but a Krawk showed up at my doorstep, a while ago. I had no idea of his malicious intentions... he possessed greater skill than I, and he forced me to forge a letter to the Earl of Brightvale. He used a horrid, horrid spell... I'm so sorry for pulling you into this.”
“Wait, the letter was...” Layla felt her heart sink. She hadn't really been called to an apprenticeship. Not under the great sorceress. The Gnorbu should have realized the peculiarity of the situation, but she had been too blinded with joy to care. As disappointing as it was, Layla knew it didn't matter right now.
“What did the Krawk want, then? Did he want me, or...?”
“No, he had other things in mind, I believe.” Isis sighed wearily. “I don't know much. His thugs managed to trap me down here soon afterwards. Now I wait, watching them occupy my house and fill it with vile magic...”
“Don't talk that way. I'm sure there's a way out of this. Did the Krawk say anything else?”
The Kyrii was silent, searching her foggy mind for answers. “There was one thing... something about a defender, if I remember correctly.”
Harwood. “We have to get out of here, and fast.” Layla stood to her feet, filled with worry and determination. Whatever was going on, Harwood was in danger, and she wouldn't just sit in a cell and hope he made it out alive.
“I know what you're thinking. But there's no way out. When I was of better health, I tried everything I could to get out. It's useless, child.”
Layla set her jaw. “There's always a way out. Are you strong enough to use any magic?”
“I'm afraid not. The spell that Krawk subjected me to drained me of my strength long ago. A curse, it was.”
Layla turned in surprise. “A curse? What-”
The Gnorbu was abruptly silenced, hearing the jangle of keys near the entrance of the cellar. The iron door swung open, a small group of the Krawk's henchmen coming into view.
“On your feet,” one of them sneered. “We wouldn't want our honored guests to miss the main event.”
To be continued...