Trey opened his eyes and a wave of confusion hit him. He wasn’t on the Heptalli ship anymore. He was out in the middle of the desert. He couldn’t recall the transition from one to the other. The last thing he remembered was the Heptalli in red saying ‘lunch time’ then his fingers began to glow blue. Her fingers started to glow blue, he corrected himself. The voice was definitely a woman’s.
“Hey, Trey, you’re finally awake,” said Billy. Trey shielded his eyes against the light and looked around. Billy was standing beside him, wearing a yellow robe rather than his normal woollen attire. He helped Trey get to his feet.
“What happened?” Trey asked, trying to fill in the blank spots in his memory.
“That woman put a sleeping spell on us to keep us out of the way while they sorted the aftermath of the battle. We’re at their village now. The spell wore off ages ago, you just naturally slept afterwards.”
“Oh,” Trey muttered. “Why would they need a camp when they have a huge ship?”
“It’s a big tribe,” replied Billy simply.
Trey yawned as he surveyed their surroundings. They seemed to be inside a giant sand crater. Then he realised it was more of a valley made from two giant dunes. He looked to the side and saw that another dune started at either side, effectively boxing them in. The valley was filled with sand domes which he presumed were the Heptalli buildings. At the corners where the dunes met were slight gaps that the Heptalli had used as shelters for their sand ships. At one corner was the big ship that the boys had travelled on. In the other three corners were smaller ships, about half the size of the first one. That put it into perspective how enormous the valley truly was.
“How come they left me outside instead of in one of the domes?” Trey asked. Every movement brought a sharp stinging pain from his sunburned skin. “It’s baking out here.”
“We were left outside too. It’s because they’re not sure of us yet. They want us to see their Elder to determine if we’re trustworthy. Now you’re awake we’re going to be led to that big dome in the middle of the camp,” Billy said as he pointed towards the biggest dome.
A young man dressed in the yellow robes walked towards them. He had a lean build and a mass of dark hair that framed his angular face. “I will take you to the Elder.”
They were just about to set off when Trey realised that they were missing companions. “Wait, where are Zak and Pux?”
“Oh, yes,” stated Billy. “They think he’s our leader. He wouldn’t let go of that damn axe when they confiscated our weapons and somehow he ended up in a duel with the Heptalli champion and has been sparring with him since.”
“Is he safe?” asked Trey.
“Yes he’s safe. These dumb people almost worship him,” replied Billy bitterly.
“I’m afraid so. He’s meeting us at that big dome. Pux is with him.”
Trey decided to don the yellow robes that were offered to him like Billy as the sun shone brightly above, roasting anything unprotected. The robes covered his entire body except for his head, yet they were pleasantly cool. The material was a thin silk that sat in many layers, each movement sending air twisting through the individual folds and overlays of fabric.
In the time it took to reach the Elder’s dome, Trey had learnt that the Heptalli guiding them was called Soih. He explained that his name was a Heptalli word for great heat. He was born on the hottest day for generations. Out of all the births that week he was the only survivor because the heat had killed the rest. He informed them that most Heptalli names had meanings behind them.
Trey also learned that the Heptalli were lizard worshipers. Most of the sandstone domes that they passed had decorations depicting various reptiles. He had even seen a few live lizards roaming the village.
Tan skinned, yellow robed men, women and children went about their lives but kept their distance from the two boys. They eyed them cautiously with nervous glances.
When they reached the Elder’s dome, Trey was amazed. The entire surface had patterns and images of reptiles and people, strange flowing writing, and what looked like bloody handprints clustered across the wall which Soih informed them were left by every Elder since the dome was built. The entrance inside was a huge lizard head with its mouth open. Its tongue was stuck out and rested on the ground, acting as a ramp into the building. They stepped inside into a spacious chamber that had a desk in the centre and stone benches in a ring around the wall. At the opposite side from where Trey stood was another door that bore no decoration at all, just plain wood.
A few of the benches were occupied by Heptalli members. One was taken up by Zak and his axe. He sat happily swinging his legs and sucking on a large pink lollypop. Pux was standing on his shoulder, his eyes constantly scanning the room for any sign of danger. Sat on the next bench was a tough looking Heptalli who was pouting. Soih went to the desk at the centre to speak with the women behind it. Trey and Billy went to join Zak.
“So, what have you been up to?” Trey asked after a brief nod of greeting.
Zak removed the lollipop from his mouth then took a deep breath. “They tried to take my axe off of me but I wouldn’t give it them and then I annoyed the tribe’s champion and we had a duel but he was under orders not to hurt me so I won him then he got moody so I got to keep my axe then he said he’ll give me a lollipop if I shut up but that just made me more hyper and then we came here and met you and started talking about how I won him and got a lollipop and came here and met you.” He finished his rant and began to breathe again.
“Oh, by the way, they think I’m the leader so I don’t want to disappoint them.”
“Nice try,” answered Billy.
Soih returned from the desk. “Now you may enter through the Elder’s door. Show respect. If you try anything funny, you will die,” he said in a serious tone.
They stood up and approached the Elder’s door with all the eyes in the room following them. Trey slowly opened the door and stepped inside. The room beyond was small and dark, lit only by candles. Around the room’s circular walls were shelves holding strange items that Trey couldn’t begin to guess the purpose of. On the floor were several well-stuffed pillows, and on the pillow furthest from the boys sat an elderly woman. Behind the woman, another door.
The woman looked ancient. While Mr Malma had been very old but retained a level of youthful appearance, she seemed to have embraced age, her face a mass of wrinkles and her hair a pure white. She was small and frail looking but her general manner was imposing all the same. Everything about her screamed knowledge and wisdom. She wore crimson robes rather than the commonplace yellow ones.
“Welcome,” she croaked. “Please take a seat.”
The boys complied. The candles burned with a strange scent and the items on the walls were casting flickering shadows across the room. The whole scene looked strangely ethereal as though they had just stepped into a dream.
“Welcome to Reptia, home of the Heptalli tribe. I am Solaris Rayin, Elder of the Heptalli. What brings you young men to the desert?” she asked, getting straight to the point. Despite her age, her voice was powerful. “It is a dangerous time to travel alone.”
“I am Trey Sted and these are my friends Billy Delb and Zak Malma. Our home was destroyed and our people killed or taken by monsters,” Trey answered sadly. In all the recent chaos he had had little time to dwell on the matter. In the peace of the room, the memories screamed in his head.
“And where might that be?” she questioned. “Your accent suggests the West country.”
“Pastrino,” Trey replied.
Worry lines began to etch the old woman’s face. “Do you speak the truth?”
“Yes,” answered Billy.
“By what force could such a city have been destroyed?” she inquired, her voice tightening.
“Big scary demonic people with cool weapons,” chipped in Zak enthusiastically.
The Elder frowned. “It sounds like you are speaking of the Forukks. If that is true then we are all in grave danger. The last time they openly walked through Farava the land was nearly destroyed. We were only saved because of the Seshikedasu.”
“The what?” asked Billy.
Her frown deepened. “The ignorant people of old called him the Sword Summoner because of his ability to call forth an ancient and magical blade. They couldn’t think of a more original name.”
“We know of him. In-fact, Zak here is his descendant,” said Trey, his mind working overtime. He had learnt more history over the past few days than his entire lifetime of schooling.
“That would explain a lot. It can be no coincidence that he is standing with us now,” mused the woman as she eyed Zak. “But what is it that you are trying to achieve. Do you want safety, revenge or maybe a new life somewhere else?”
“We head for Onlasar to warn them, then with their aid we’re going to go and free our people,” Trey explained. In all honesty he hadn’t thought much about the next step, but he knew that he couldn’t live with himself unless he had at least tried to save his mother. Now that he said it aloud it all seemed a bit unrealistic.
“That is a noble cause, but a foolish one which will end in certain death without a Sword Summoner. One of those hasn’t been seen in this land since the fall of Lanstiro almost eight hundred years ago.”
“I don’t care,” answered Trey bluntly. “They destroyed my home, massacred innocents and took my mother into slavery. I can’t stand back and do nothing.”
“I would advise you not to go into battle without the Sword Summoner but I will gladly give you transport to Onlasar and a bed for the night.” She rang a small bell by her side and waited.
The door behind her opened and in walked a girl. Her fiery ruby red hair flowed around her body as she walked. Amber eyes shone from her lightly tanned face. Red robes adorned her body like the Elder and the woman who cast the sleeping spell on them back on the ship.
The Elder spoke to the boys. “This is Dawn Rayin, my granddaughter and heir to the Heptalli throne, so to speak.” She turned to the girl. “Take these young men to the guest lodgings so that they may rest. In the morning I want you to get a pilot to transport these boys to the outskirts of the desert near to Onlasar.”
The girl hesitated. “I heard your conversation about the Forukks and how these boys are going to try and fight them.” She looked to the Elder for some reaction but the woman simply sat there with an expressionless face so the girl continued. “I was hoping that I could escort them. I need experience if I’m ever going to become Matriarch and it will show they have the blessing of the Heptalli so the lizard Gods will look kindly upon them.”
“You must one day become Matriarch of the Heptalli, then the Elder, so we need you to be kept safe.”
“Yes but without experience how will I become a good leader or Elder,” she argued.
“How will you be a good leader or Elder if you are dead,” the Elder countered.
The girl sighed. “Better dead than caged for life.”
For a few minutes the Elder seemed to fall into deep thought. She finally sighed. “I will allow you to take them to the desert’s edge but then you must return.”
“Thank you Elder,” the girl replied respectfully.
“I know this isn’t the life you wanted, but it’s the path that destiny has laid down for you. The fate of our entire tribe rests on your shoulders. You are the only one who can lead them when I die and your mother becomes Elder.” The old woman spoke with a delicate understanding but made her intentions clear. The girl’s life was already decided.
The old woman finally turned back to the boys. “Is this alright with you?” she asked them.
“Yeah, sure,” answered Trey nervously.
She addressed the girl again. “Then go. After all, these boys are representatives of their city so this can count as your experience. Show them the village and give them what equipment they need,” commanded the Elder.
The girl nodded then left without another word. Trey, Zak and Billy bowed respectfully to the Elder before following. She led them through the assortment of buildings at a brisk pace. People gathered as they passed, all bowing their heads to the girl. She snorted and increased her pace. An awkward silence fell between the group as the girl didn’t seem to want to talk while Trey, Billy and Zak were too intimidated to attempt a conversation.
She stopped outside of a highly decorated dome that was set slightly apart from the other structures. Flags, shields and symbols bearing various emblems marked the place out as a shelter for foreign dignitaries.
Dawn took a small key from her robe and slid it into the lock. She opened the door then took another key that hung just inside and passed it to Trey before motioning them through. Inside was a mess of different styles and designs. Practical elements of Heptalli desert design formed the basic layout but everything else was a mesh of mixed cultures. The floor was covered by Pastrinian wool carpets, the curtains were made from Onlasarian silk, the wooden furniture seemed ornate and unnecessarily complicated, a sign of an overseas design. The bookshelf contained leather bound volumes in a dozen different languages.
“We rarely have guests but when we do we learn what we can about their culture and try to make them feel at home without making things feel too familiar,” explained Dawn. “It’s all too gaudy if you ask me, but most tend to find it interesting if nothing else.”
The bedrooms were similarly disjointed, but unlike the common room, they were sparsely filled, a hammock, desk and draws being the extent of each room’s furniture. The boys each claimed one as their own before rejoining the girl in the corridor.
“Is there any food?” Trey asked, his stomach strongly informing him that they hadn’t eaten in days.
“I have an emergency Mega-bar that’s been in my pocket for three years,” Zak offered, holding out a crushed bar of fat, oats and an assortment of other unidentifiable ingredients. It looked like the kind of thing that would cure hunger permanently, assuming that hunger was not a problem in the afterlife.
“I’ll pass,” muttered Trey. Just the look of the thing made him feel sick.
Dawn looked faintly disgusted at Zak then turned to the door. “You can get some food from the market. The Elder asked me to give you a tour so the market is as good as any place to start.”