Desert Requiem: Part Six
The Temple of a Thousand Tombs was an extensive underground network of crypts that forked beneath large tracts of the desert, including Qasala. There were several entrances into it from the surface, including one that was located within the Palace of Qasala itself. The origin of the Temple stymied modern historians. The leading theory was that it served as the final resting place of the nobility of some long extinct empire. It certainly housed grand tombs, although whether the number figured at exactly one thousand was unknown ("I lost count somewhere after one hundred and twenty" was Shasef's reply when consulted). The ancient masons seemed to believe that even the dead required stimulation of both intellect and muscle, and constructed libraries and armouries at strategic locations.
Shasef explained more about the Book of Thoki once they were comfortably settled among the shelves of one such repository of knowledge.
"It is an ancient spellbook named after the powerful sorceror who wrote it. The secret to immortality contained within is something that your late father desired more than anything else. This obsession with eternal life was one of the reasons your father couldn't stand the sight of you, by the way. According to Azamin, he once said that having an heir only reminded him of his own mortality, and once he had mastered eternity he would have no need of heirs to inherit his throne. Or was it Aqisa who said that? ...What was that, my king? You have no interest in your father's personal philosophy? Very well."
"I've got a question," Tomos piped up. "This guy Thoki, who wrote that spellbook &emdash; he could make himself immortal, right? So is he still around?"
Shasef shook his head. "Ironically, no. Immortality is not the same as indestructibility. He could still be killed. Thoki had two sons who were ideological opposites. The elder, Ramseth, strove to prove to his father that he was worthy of being taught the secret of eternal life. The younger, Beku, thought that immortality was unnatural in any being except the faeries, and privately berated his father for not accepting his mortal fate. He helped his father to a swift end and then tried afterwards to destroy his father's Book, but Ramseth had locked it away in an unknown location. Their next meeting culminated in a fight to the death. Both brothers perished in the duel, and the Book of Thoki was thought to be lost forvever. However, rumour had it that Ramseth had left behind clues to the location of his father's Book, and that the key that would unlock its doors had fallen into the care of one of Ramseth's friends. Rumours that turned out to be true, as it were." He inclined his head towards Jazan and said, "I have a favour to ask of you, Your Majesty. When you finally apprehend Ghonim, do not kill him, but threaten to do so unless he releases me from my curse."
Jazan looked sharply at him. "What curse?"
Shasef drew back his cloak to reveal what looked like a symbol of a stylized jaw on his arm. It meant nothing to Sayidah, but Jazan drew in a sharp instake of breath. "The Curse of a Thousand Bites," the King of Qasala growled. "Ghonim placed that on you?"
Shasef re-adjusted his cloak. "Yes."
"Shortly after Razul's death."
"In short, after I had outlawed such a curse," Jazan muttered darkly. "Although his actions would have been condemned even in the old days. Only royalty and nobility may commission the Curse of a Thousand Bites, to be placed only on servants in sensitive positions."
"Ironically," Shasef said, "Ghonim, Aqisa, and Azamin were themselves once victims to the same curse. It was Emperor Razul who cursed them, so no law was broken then. The three of them were clever, however; they freed themselves by attending your curse-breakinga ritual in the guise of ordinary palace servants."
Jazan clenched his teeth. "Clever of them indeed." Then something occurred to him, and he demanded, "How do I know you were not sent by Ghonim to betray us, seeing as how he has such a hold over you?"
"Because," Shasef said, "I want nothing more than to break that hold. If I submit to Ghonim now, I would be doomed to do his bidding forever. You are one of the few people with the power to cow Ghonim into releasing me, so it would be far more advantageous to side with you."
Jazan considered his words and nodded. "That is true. I will ensure that Master Ghonim abides by the laws I have set."
Tomos looked from one to the other. "Am I missing something here? What's this 'Curse of Bites' thingy?"
"Every day from midnight to dawn," Shasef said, "I will feel a burning pain throughout my whole body as if bitten by a thousand Blechies. And after a thousand consecutive days, my life will come to an end unless the one whom I am tied to through this curse suspends its ill effects by force of will, or free me from it entirely in an elaborate ritual. Ghonim cursed me purely for malice, but the original purpose of the curse was to discourage treachery in servants. The curse is initiated on the night of their master's death, or through their master's will if their master lives still."
"But what of innocent servants whose master died not by their hand?" Sayidah asked softly.
It was Jazan who answered. "A blood descendant of the deceased aristocrat can inherit power over cursed servants, so long as they know the key chant that would re-tie the curse to themselves. This key chant is normally passed on in a will or on their forebear's deathbeds, or they might even be told early on if their predecessor's trust in them is strong. My situation was curious in that it was my mother, not my father, who supplied me the key chant that I used to free those among my father's old servants who were affected. I never knew how she obtained it."
Sayidah frowned as a disturbing thought occurred to her. "But what happens if a noble has no blood descendants, or if the key chant is lost?"
"In such cases, the common consensus among the elite class is that servants are... expendable."
Tomos cocked his head in confusion. "As in, they can grow bigger?"
"As in, 'your life is not important enough to be worth the effort saving, so you had better watch yourself'."
Tomos did not look very satisfied with this elucidation. He pretended to be busy contemplating Shasef's hood. "Every day from midnight to dawn, huh? So how are ya gonna get any sleep?"
"My hours of repose are normally from dawn to noon, not that sleep comes easily. However, in our current time-pressed state, I do not plan on sleeping at all for the next two days. You need not fear that lack of rest would impair my trustworthiness as a guide &emdash; I took the liberty of requisitioning potions that will temporarily stave off the effects of somnolence, although they will catch up with me in the end. Also, I will remove myself to another chamber prior to midnight and surround myself with a spell of silence out of consideration for your eyes and ears."
Tomos blinked. "Huh?"
"He means so that we needn't see him writhe or hear him scream," Jazan said shortly.
There was an awkward pause.
Shasef stood up. "I had better go prepare myself now. See you in the morrow. Sleep well."
Guard duty fell onto Khalid. Although the Temple of a Thousand Tombs was a burial ground, there were many living &emdash; or at least sentient &emdash; creatures to beware of. Wild Petpets sometimes wandered in by accident. Shasef had also spoken of giant gelatinous blobs that ate up everything &emdash; and everyone &emdash; in their path, not to mention spectral sentinels who sometimes stray far from the tombs they were supposed to be guarding. And of course, there were the occasional tomb raiders and evil sorcerors. The Nightsteed was well-equipped to handle most of those.
Sayidah approached her friend just as he was making for his post. "I'm sorry for what happened in the garden this evening," she said. "Those ladies were skittish. You possess courage they cannot even conceive of."
She may have been addressing a sarcophagus for all the response she received.
He did not meet her gaze. "I have duties to attend. Please refrain from distracting me whilst we are here."
He left. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach.
They kept reasonable track of time, despite not having brought any time-keeping instruments with them. Shasef could sense the coming of midnight just as keenly as Khalid felt the transition between night and day. By the last day, Tomos was sore &emdash; literally and figuratively &emdash; over the fact that Jazan had charged him with being the pack Apis of the group.
"These supplies are heavy!" the Lupe whined, as he ostentatiously shifted his burden around on his back. "Why can't he carry them? He's the one who's built for carryin' things!"
"Khalid," Jazan ground out, "you have my leave to bite him."
Tomos scooted further away from the Uni. "What did I ever do to you?" he mumbled. "I mean, what did Sakhmet ever do to you? That ya thought we were the ones who cursed your Baggussin' city?"
Sayidah wondered about that as well, although she had not found opportunity to ask. Both she and Tomos gazed expectantly at Jazan.
The King of Qasala was silent for several moments. "Anaphses II was our greatest enemy and arch-rival at the time," he finally said. "He was the one who stood to gain the most if our city fell. Our court was rightly suspicious when he extended a peace offering in the form of a matrimonial alliance between myself and his only daughter, Princess Isis. But my father ignored the counsel of his advisors and went to Sakhmet to finalize the marriage agreement. While there, he mysteriously took ill and expired. Anaphses returned the body to us, along with his deepest condolences, but that did not stop the whisperings of foul play. Shortly after the Sakhmetian envoy left, a sandstorm obliterated our city and our people emerged cursed. So you can see how the assumption came about."
"The curse has a name," Shasef spoke suddenly. "It is known formally as the Curse of the Legions Undead. Razul had been weaving it for some time, aiming to forge an unstoppable army that would enable him to conquer the known world. Did you ever realize that you missed such an unprecedented opportunity, King Jazan?"
"I considered the curse a blight to remove, not an opportunity to be taken advantage of. I am not the expansionist that my father was, nor do I intend to follow in his footsteps. How come you to know so much of the curse?"
"Razul's spies were free with the sordid details when they had me imprisoned," Shasef replied. "By your leave, I will repeat them here to clear up any lingering queries you may have.
"Although Razul often styled himself as the most powerful sorceror to ever live, there were in fact three others at that time whose power rivalled or even surpassed his. One of those, Master Kafiq, held a vindictive grudge against Razul, and it was he who Anaphses secretly summoned to Sakhmet one day. Anaphses had chanced upon the secret of an ancient and forbidden curse known as the Curse of Eternal Enslavement, which he planned to use against his long-time foe. However, the curse required a sorceror of Master Kafiq's calibre to cast, and Kafiq was only too happy to volunteer his services.
"The Curse of Eternal Enslavement did exactly that: enslave a person's life force so that they would be compelled to carry out the bidding of their master and master's heirs for all eternity. Anaphses lured Razul to Sakhmet with the promise of a royal union and had the curse laid on him then. Outwardly, Razul appeared to be deceased. But in reality, his life force was trapped in an interdimensional prison; the key to that prison was in the form of a magical ring that Anaphses had commissioned especially for the purpose. A direct blood descendant of Anaphses's who wore the ring could command Razul by turning the ring over clockwise and uttering an incantation. There was also a way to completely free Razul from the bonds of the curse: the descendant must turn the ring over anti-clockwise and utter a different incantation. Anaphses would have preferred not to have an exit clause at all, so to speak, but the First Law of Malediction states that each curse must have a way of being broken.
"If the curse-breaking ritual sounds familiar to you, King Jazan, it is because Razul's spies made sure you thought you had to incorporate it into your wedding ceremony.
"Anaphses never got to use the ring, and neither was he able to pass on the instructions of its usage. Razul, while his body wasted away in Sakhmet, learnt of the plot from his servant, and quickly retaliated. He ordered his agents to assassinate Anaphses and obtain the magic ring, after which they were to unleash the Curse of the Legions Undead and arrange things so that his son would think that the only way to break the curse was to marry a Sakhmetian princess. Razul thought it was only fitting to end his curse the way it had started, and having his unstoppable army ready for him after his return suited his original plans of martial supremacy.
"Ironically, it was Anaphses who courted his own end. He became paranoid after he saw what sorcerors could do to emperors. As soon as he completed the arrangements for the return of Razul's remains, he tried to poison Master Kafiq. But Kafiq destroyed Anaphses instead and fled. Princess Isis was also killed when she tried to shield her father. In the resulting confusion, Anaphses's ring fell into the hands of Razul's servant. The Sakhmetian court sorcerors were accused of collusion in Anaphses's death and were summarily executed by his successor, who banned the practice of installing court sorcerors thereafter. In hindsight, perhaps it was a good thing that I was in Qasala after all.
"Isis's demise was an unwelcome complication. However, Razul's agents soon rallied. They realized that this was a sublime opportunity to complete another mission that Razul had entrusted them with long ago &emdash; the location of the Book of Thoki. As Prince Jazan whiled away the centuries in travel and adventure as he awaited his princess, so did they in excavation and exploration."
Tomos kicked a stone across the floor. "So that's all that's needed: royal blood, a ring, and some stupid chant," he mumbled. "All the mumbo jumbo about 'true love' being needed to end the Baggusin' curse was just that."
Jazan folded his arms behind his back. "Yes. That was something Nabile misinterpreted, accidentally or otherwise."
The youth scowled. "And how were ya gonna convince the Princess that you're a cursed royal dude who needs help to free your city? Your plan musta been good, since she threw you out of her palace."
A spark of electricity suddenly jumped to Tomos's fur, causing the Lupe to yelp in surprise. Jazan idly examined his fingers and said in a voice of dangerous calm, "A Shenkuuvese soothsayer told me that the Sakhmetian princess who I was fated to marry would already have read of my history prior to our first meeting. In those days, I thought Anaphses was responsible for everything, so this sounded plausible to me. Who was to say he hadn't kept a secret diary of his deeds that a descendant of his would later stumble across? So I assumed... But what matters is that the soothsayer's prediction was fulfilled in the end, even if not quite in the way I imagined."
Tomos harrumphed unhappily and nursed his singed tail.
Khalid was still not speaking to her.
They spent their last evening in an armoury that was located not far from Ramseth's Vault. Shasef returned from his reconnaissance to quietly report that Razul's spies had already sequestered themselves within the chamber that housed the Vault, waiting for the doors to appear in the morning.
"Good," Jazan said with dark satisfaction. "Khalid and I will surprise them shortly before dawn."
After supper, the King sat down beside Sayidah and asked, "So how are you finding the legendary Temple of a Thousand Tombs?"
"Not quite as dangerous as reported. I have full hopes of surviving long enough to write my thesis on it."
His lips curved into a smile. "Even so, keep a firm grip on the ring that I passed you."
"I will, Your Majesty."
"Not that it might be my place to ask, but... did a quarrel occur between you and Khalid?"
Sayidah winced. So someone had noticed. "Not that I know of."
"Hn," was Jazan's only response.
They regarded the weapons lining the armoury wall in mutual silence.
It was Sayidah who spoke first. "I want to commend you on your restraint, Your Majesty, during the time when you were... trying to persuade Princess Amira. While I was not there personally, my cousin Imroth has passed me certain observations of his."
Jazan barked out a short, bitter laugh. "I was wondering if any Sakhmetians had noticed, although I don't expect them to thank me for it. I had given my soldiers the strictest orders not to harm any of the inhabitants of Sakhmet &emdash; they were to bluff and terrify only. That injunction was, to the best of my knowledge, obeyed to the letter. There were still a few casualties, unfortunately, but none that had been caused directly by my people. And there was a reason why I transported Sakhmet to the dimension of Tsenda, apart from the obvious 'cut off their access to outside help and frighten them into compliance'. For then I could cast a spell &emdash; a singularly complex and arduous one, I might add &emdash; that would repair any structural damage the city sustained in Tsenda as soon as it returned to its original dimension of Neopia. And I wouldn't call it restraint so much as pragmatism. Amira was right about one thing: I have no desire to rule a city in flames, or one with an alarming mortality rate. Any sane ruler would strive for the exact opposite."
Sayidah allowed herself a small smile. "If you will forgive me for saying so, Your Majesty &emdash; I know of many who would not choose to describe you as 'sane'. Including, when she is particularly annoyed, Queen Nabile."
Jazan's laugh, this time, was not bitter. "There's my adorable, uncensored guttersnipe! But don't tell her I called her that. It would probably annoy her."
When she woke early next morning, Sayidah saw that a golden circle had been drawn into the floor of the armoury, unrecognizable hieroglyphs written within its borders. "What is that, King Jazan?"
"A teleportation circle," the King replied. "Khalid and I had just completed it. Worked within by a trained sorceror, it will transport us back to the palace."
Tomos poked the circle experimentally. "Why couldn't you have made one of these thingamajigs to transport us here, instead of making us walk all the way?"
"For the spell to work," Jazan continued, roughly tugging Tomos back from the circle by the collar of his vest, "there must be two corresponding circles drawn at the departure and destination ends. The court sorcerors have already set up a twin circle in the Sorcerors' Hall."
"You certain about that?" Tomos asked anxiously. "What if they decided to sleep in and the circle's not even so much as a dot?"
"Nabile assures me that everything is in readiness," Jazan said, absently fingering one of his rings. Sayidah had noticed him speaking into the ring several times while they were in the Underground Temple. She wondered whether that was the means of his communication with Queen Nabile.
"You&emdash;" the King pointed emphatically at Tomos "&emdash;will remain here with Lady Sayidah until Khalid and I return. I have erected a ward at the entrance that should protect you at this end."
Tomos peered up at him nervously. "But what about at your end? What if Razul's thugs beat you and&emdash;"
Lightning flew from Jazan's hand, causing Tomos to grab his tail protectively.
The King laughed. "I am heartened by your confidence in our imminent victory. Khalid, to me! Once again, we meet our foes together in battle."
The 'battle' was embarrassingly one-sided.
The Halloween Elephante, Ghonim, prostrated himself face down on the ground, trembling as he spoke. "Y-Your Majesty! M-My one and true king! I beg of you, spare our unworthy lives! I swear fealty&emdash;"
"Silence, craven churl. Where is the Scarab Amulet?"
Ghonim reached into his robes and offered the golden amulet up in his hands, as if in supplication. "In exchange for my miserable preservation, I&emdash;"
"I said silence!"
Jazan took the amulet and swept his gaze over his captives. "I heard that there were three of you. Where is the third one?"
"A-Aqisa had to stay back!" the Desert Moehog, Azamin, babbled. "Sh-she was suddenly taken by indisposition! Her monthly&emdash;"
"Enough," Jazan cut him off abruptly. He examined the Scarab in his hand, and then gazed towards the Scarab-shaped depression set beside the doors.
Khalid came to stand beside his liege. "Are you going to unlock the Vault, Jazan?"
The Kyrii traced a finger over the Scarab in his hand. "I am weighing the matter in my mind. What would you advise, my friend?"
It was Azamin who responded. Lifting his face from off the ground, the sorceror stammered, "I-If I may, sire... it would be better for Sakhmet if you took the Book of Thoki into your safekeeping. It would eliminate the risk of Princess Amira being the target of future thefts, should any others learn of her Amulet's secret."
"Hn," Jazan said. "There is sense in those words. Your life may be worth sparing after all, Moehog."
"M-My king! I am honoured&emdash;"
"Cease your senseless simpering." Jazan turned back to face the doors to Thoki's Vault. They looked nothing spectacular, merely two grey slabs of hinged stone. A line of hieroglyphics running along the top read: Only they who possess the keys may enter.
Jazan frowned. "The hieroglyphs are from an ancient and forgotten script, but I am fairly sure that those two branching lines imply the plural, rather than singular form, of 'key'."
Khalid fixed the weight of his querying gaze upon their prisoners.
"W-we only know of one key!" Ghonim implored.
Jazan shrugged and made as if to insert the Scarab Amulet into its alloted space &emdash; only to find himself frustrated by an unseen force. "What is this?" he exclaimed, jerking back. "There is a barrier that prevents my hand from moving further!" He turned to glare at the two defeated sorcerors, as if they were personally responsible.
Ghonim spoke cautiously. "It could be another safeguard. Ramseth seemed to be fastidious with those. If you find that you cannot break the seal, my king, perhaps it would be better to&emdash;"
Jazan waved the rest of his words away and turned back to regard this new problem. It took him only a few seconds to overcome the barrier, and the Scarab Amulet slipped neatly into place.
That was when Jazan realized that something was terribly wrong.
Sayidah allayed Tomos's fears by informing him of the emergency provision Jazan had provided them &emdash; her, actually &emdash; just before their descent into the Temple.
"He gave me a ring that would take the wearer home when worn," she explained as she parted her neck ruff to reveal a banded red-and-yellow ring strung on a slim chain. "As an insurance. It is called the Ring of the Lost."
Tomos studied the ornament. "Glad to see you again, ring. Do you have any spares?"
Sayidah rearranged her neck ruff. "There is only one Ring of the Lost, I'm afraid. But it is possible to transport more than one person, as long as the others hold on to the wearer. I am confident that I will not have to use it, but I thought you should be reassured that there is an alternate means of return to Qasala."
"You mean Sakhmet."
"You're Sakhmetian, right? So if you put on that ring, it'll send us back to our own city."
"...Of course. How clumsy of me. Tomos, I thought I heard movement in that corner. Could you go ascertain what it is?"
Shasef dragged himself in from an antechamber some time later, his face and form completely obscured by his cloak. He sank down within the teleportation circle. "Don't wake me until evening," he croaked. He drew from beneath his cloak a bottle of dark blue liquid, which he unstoppered and drank from. He did not swallow the contents immediately; he resealed the bottle first and stored it back to its proper place. Only then did he direct the liquid down his throat. Instantly, he collapsed and fell into a deep sleep.
Tomos crouched down beside him and whistled. "He's sleeping like the dead! No offence to all the dead people down here. I wish I could get me some of that stuff he drank." The Lupe eyed the Draik's cloak speculatively. "Or maybe I can..."
Sayidah pulled him away firmly by the arm. "I absolutely forbid it, Tomos! You will neither disturb his much-needed repose nor steal from him while he lies helpless!"
Tomos slipped his arm free from her grasp and stuck out his tongue. "Yes, Mother," he said in a tone that Sayidah was sure Nabile had to put up with many a time.
Tomos was regaling her with stories of his past escapades when the pounding of hooves resounded beyond the doorway. Khalid burst into the room with uncharacteristic force; in his mouth he carried a shining gold object, while Jazan's unmoving form lay draped across his broad back. Khalid deposited the Scarab Amulet before Sayidah and said, "Jazan attempted to open Ramseth's Vault. But instead he triggered a death wave that aimed to destroy any living being who stood within the chamber housing the Vault's doors."
Sayidah's breath hitched in her throat. "Is King Jazan&emdash;"
"No. Both he and I threw up a shield around him in time. He suffered nothing worse than a concussion from when his head struck the ground. Razul's servants were not so fortunate. I am afraid that Shasef's curse will never be lifted." His eyes darted towards the oblivious form of the sleeping Draik. For a moment, Sayidah thought that she imagined a flicker of &emdash; envy? &emdash; pass through those crimson orbs. But his tone when he spoke next was one of control and stolid command. "Gather in the circle. I will send us back."
Sayidah could not help thinking, despite the gravity of the situation, that this was the first time in two days that he had spoken to her.
To be continued…