Chapter XII: The Ancient City

            Toyus stood under the canopy of trees and watched the rainfall just beyond the fronds.  He liked the patter of raindrops on the fronds and the cool breeze that swept past once in a while, licking at the sweat on his brow.  It was just a bit after dawn and the temperatures were already beginning to climb.  When the clouds overhead were pushed north, the rain stopped and blue skies showed.

            Behind him, Ariahl urged the team to rise and get ready to move before the day grew too warm and uncomfortable.  

            Toyus shivered.  He had had the strong sensation of being watched last night.  The sensation still lingered with him, making him wary and constantly run his gaze along the land and down the incline to the river.  He had been unable to eat anything, and he had been unable to sleep.  He had already confided his uncertainty to Ariahl.  Her solution was to keep moving.  Toyus wasn’t too sure, but he acquiesced to her superior skills.

            He bent and picked up his rolled pallet and travel bag.  

            Ereali trudged up with his rolled-up pallet and travel bag.

            “You did not sleep, did you?” Ereali asked.        

            Toyus sighed.  “No.”

            Ereali cocked his head.  “Is something wrong?  Are you ill?”

            Toyus shook his head.  “I’ve had the sensation that we are being observed by something or someone.”

            Ereali looked around him as if he would see for himself.  “Ah.  Did you tell the team leader?”

            Toyus nodded.  “She wants us moving, but she doesn’t seem overly concerned.”

            The others approached, led by Ariahl.

            “We are going to head down to the river and follow it northeast,” Ariahl told the team.  “Toyus has had the sensation that we are being observed, so keep your eyes open.  We haven’t seen predators as yet, but I am sure they exist.”

            The team looked at one another as Ariahl led them down the incline towards the river.  The roar of the river reached them long before they walked upon its shores.  It was a wide river with swift currents and large boulders rearing up from its depths.  In the future, when they travel upon it, they would have to be aware of the boulders along the way.  The river water was black as night and, when Toyus bent to scoop some into his mouth, he noted the mineral taste.

            As the day aged, the temperatures grew progressively warmer.  The sun rose until it glared down upon them, evaporating the water from the ground and creating a miasma of water vapor.  

            The team donned their light cloaks and pulled the hoods over their heads to keep the glare of the sun to a minimum.  

            Insects buzzed everywhere.    

            The banks of the river were stony.  It made for an uncomfortable walk, especially since the Amalgamese walked barefoot.  The walls of the canyon rose higher and closer together as the company continue to trudge northeast until they were forced to walk single file. The rock here was bare and black.  

            Overhead, the sides of the canyon jutted outward.  The river grew narrower, its shore gradually disappearing, until they walked at the lip of the water.  Toyus made Ereali walk ahead of him and kept an eye on their rear.  

            The river curved west after a time and with it curved the walls of the canyon.  

            Ariahl called for a midday rest under an overhang where they could rest and eat without the sun glaring down upon them.  There was nothing to be done about the humidity.

            Toyus helped Ereali distribute food among the team.  He took a seat at the edge of their gathering and kept a watch behind them and to the other side of the river.  

            The Sentinel allowed them one-hour rest before she urged the tired team to rise once more.  They filled their bladders with the river’s cold water before they recommenced their journey.  In time, the sides of the canyon dropped back, and the river widened once more.  The river moved at a much more sedate speed than it had previously.  The jungle cleared out a bit until they were walking through a lush grassy plane.  In the distance, they could see the skeletal ruins of a long-ago city.  They paused in awe at the heights of the buildings.  A barricade of thick vine covered a wall made of piled logs surrounding the dead city.  They headed towards.

            They walked through the open gates and  under a curving sign overgrown with vines.  The walls of the city rose at least ten feet into the air and the entrance was wide enough to allow all their group to enter as one.  Beyond the walls were buildings of black stone of different sizes.  In the middle of the small city rose a pyramid.  Hundreds of steps led to the top of the pyramid.  The stone was worn down by the elements.  The Sentinel told them the stone was aged at least 2,300 years.  In awe, the group gathered before the pyramid and Ariahl split them into six groups, leaving two to keep an eye on their surroundings.   They agreed to explore for no more than a couple of hours before they met up again at the base of the pyramid.

            Toyus led the first group.  In his group were Ereali and Otheno.  They headed up the stairs of the pyramid towards the top.  Toyus counted 480 steps total before they reached the top of the pyramid.  He estimated the pyramid was around 20 stories high. The top of the pyramid was not pointed, but flat and there was a stone table in the center.  He came to a stop just outside the opening to the pyramid and turned 360 degrees.  The jungle stretched far into the horizon in all directions.  He could see the canyon nearby and the proximity of the river.  

            “Where did the inhabitants get all this stone?” Ereali asked, wiping his fur with a hand.

            Toyus studied the distance.  “I don’t know.  Perhaps they mined the canyon.”

            “But that stone was different,” Ereali said.  “Softer.”

            “Huh,” Toyus replied.  He looked at his friend.  “I’m not sure, Ereali.”

            There was an opening carved into the floor near the table.   It was square and wide enough to just squeeze through.  They peered within into absolute darkness. 

            “We can get inside but we need torches,” Toyus murmured.  “We can make one from a piece of my tunic and a stick and some of my cooking oil.”

            Toyus descended, leaving the other two behind, and searched for a thick piece of wood. There was detritus around the edges of the city at the foot of the walls.  He found an adequate stick there, tore off a long piece of his tunic and, using some of his cooking oil, drenched the piece of cloth before heading back to the top of the pyramid. Once at the summit, he used his ca’ahl stones to light the torch on fire. 

            Toyus looked at his companions.  “Shall we?”

            Otheno looked unsure, but Ereali nodded enthusiastically.

            Toyus stepped down onto the stairwell and bent at the waist to avoid the low ceiling.  The walls to either side of the stairwell were decorated with bright splashes of color and figures carved into the black stone.  Toyus paused when he could straighten and ran his hands over the carvings on the walls.  The figures were realistic and drawn to scale.  There were figures of people and animals, plants and stones. It seemed the entirety of the inner walls of the pyramid were decorated so.  The air was oppressively still and dry as dust.  Toyus sighed at the absence of thick humidity and heat.

            They continued further into the inky darkness.   The light of the sputtering torch danced against the walls of the stairwell.  The shadows seemed to animate the carvings on the walls.  Above them, the ceiling fell away.  Strange insects crawled along the walls.  They gave off a cold light and filled the absolute darkness like stars in the night sky.  Finally, after a long time, they reached the base of the pyramid.  The space was cavernous.  The light of torch only reached a few feet around them.  They walked along the walls and noted the niches where vases of gold and silver stood silently.  Others were of glazed pottery.  Blocks of stones were positioned around in a semicircle near two huge stone doors that rose several feet into the air.  The tall doors had round handles of stained copper.  It took all three of them to open the doors.  

            A rush of fresh balmy air and sunlight rushed against them.  The rest of the team stood on the grounds nearby, talking animatedly.  Some held pottery in their hands and were gesticulating excitedly.

            Toyus and his two companions left the pyramid and approached the rest of the team.

            Ariahl looked at him.  “What’s in the pyramid?”

            “Gold, silver and pottery.  The walls are filled with exquisite carvings, what we could see.”

            She frowned.  “We might leave this as an excavation site, or we might bring the colony here.  There are huts of stone already built and a barricade keeping wild animals out. The buildings are not in disrepair.  What do you think, Toyus?”

            He looked around.  “That would be for the colony to decide.  Some won’t be strong enough to make it here, though, and we are too far from the sea to have access to its bounty.”

            “The river empties into the sea,” Ariahl offered.  “We could build boats to access the sea.  Also, we can use the shuttle to bring your colony here, if you decide to relocate.  You will be close to a source of fresh water and the river must have fish.”

            Toyus nodded.  “I will discuss it with the Council.”

            Ariahl looked at the dying light overhead.  “We need to camp here for the night before we strike out once more at sunrise.”

            Toyus returned to the pyramid and walked around the inside of its base to study the carvings on the walls.  Some of the carvings rose tens of feet into the air.  He was in awe of it all.  Eventually, he left the pyramid, closing the doors behind him and made his way to where the team had built a pyre.  He saw that the entrance to the city had been shut for the night.  He still had the sensation of something stalking them, watching them from a distance.  It was then that a yowl filled the night beyond the barricade.  The team fell silent.

            “What was that?” asked Matiman with some trepidation.

            “A predator perhaps?” Ariahl replied.  “Sounds like some wildcat.”

            Matiman shivered and rubbed her arms.  “Is that what has been tracking us?”

            “Who knows?” Ariahl replied.  “But I think our numbers are enough to deter most predators.  Most predators are solitary, although I’ll own I know little of your world.”

            “Just be alert tomorrow,” Toyus said.

            The yowl came again closer and Toyus rose from his seat.  He scented the air, but the air was redolent with so many smells, he huffed in frustration.

            Ariahl came to stand beside him.  “I am keeping an eye on things, Toyus.  You need to sleep tonight. It would not do to exhaust yourself.”

            His eyes scanned the sky.  “I don’t need as much rest as I used to.”

            She inclined her head.  “That is true, but still this constant alertness is going to wear you down.”

            He sighed.  “You might be correct.  I’ll try to relax.”

            She smiled at him.  “Would you like to return with us to explore the city?”

            He brightened.  “I would love that, Ariahl.”

            She nodded.  “Good.  The Sentinels will fly the shuttle here.  We’ll be able to land it on the grounds here.  We’ll explore this ancient city and see if some of the Amalgamese would settle here.  It seems more secure than the wooden structures we are building.”

            He looked around at the curved stone huts.  “I see that.  Besides, from the top of the pyramid we can see for miles.”

            “Yes,” she agreed.   “Come. Join me for the evening meal.”

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