Eggs of Time
Part two: Song of the Explorers
Erien Meadlowry sighed, partly in exasperation and partly from being slightly winded. Even over two years after the war had ended Praxis was still not fully recovered and any people, be they Mamonme, humans or otherwise, would still all too easily fall back on old feuds and stereotypes while dealing with others. He had been forced to break up several fights between the local envoys of the Sulleimaan Empire and the archeological team that had been brought together by the Praxian Council of Nations.
Though in essence just a fancy name for a meeting between his wife Clover and Eiraiha, their Goddess and by adoption sister along with representatives of some allied states, they hoped it would in truth be that one day. A council made on a meritocratic basis that would encourage a peaceful world… Maybe even beyond just Praxis and Ithus, though he knew not what to think of that concept.
Eihy was actually more than ten times older than he, but for a Goddess that was hardly any age at all… It showed in the simple truth that even after little Aerdayasêr had been born she still had the qualities of an energetic little sister who enthusiastically strove to make the world a better place. She’d applied the same enthusiasm to getting him and Clover to be allowed to ascend among the other Celestials.
Back when he first met her face to face, he’d never have been able to imagine where it would take him. A deeper sigh escaped his lips even as he reflected on the other humans present. Even Tam al’Daren, a capable quartermaster and retired soldier, had been all too eager to spill the blood of the envoys today and that feeling had been mutual. They had been offended because he did not address them with the deference they felt due to them by their station from one who served a lord and he had been offended because some pompous drawling idiots who’d done nothing to save Praxis tried to treat him like a slave.
Erien had defused the situation quite capably, but it made him dispirited as it was the umpteenth such conflict he’d resolved in his life. If only people thought a bit more, acted a little more empathically towards one another instead of walking with their heads shoved up their arses. The Sulleimaan Empire was actually a mixed blessing. They had been formed from warring tribes by the eponymous Sultan Sulleimaan and brought to a modern civilization in less than three hundred years.
Sadly enough some parts of their culture, like the rigid castes of nobility still hearkened to the cruel past where one without a title was as nothing to those with one. Nobles delighted in using a drawling dialect that drove those not accustomed to it to frustrated madness. They had left these ruins untouched since times immemorial, a cursed place if you heard the wise men and women on the streets of Atatopolis, the city where he’d met with the current Sultan. That is where things turned sour for Erien. The enthusiasm awakened in the wizened Sultan Ottokar caused the noble flunkeys to bound over each other to be the envoy to the expedition.
Thus, he had a rotating selection of usually completely unsuitable and long-winded envoys that needed to be taken care of. It had been a good idea to bring some of the Naga along as they could, for most of the time, keep them occupied. The occasionally competent envoys were sent his way and helped with cataloguing the discovered finds. Time had not been kind on the ruined city as badly eroded dwellings barely rose from the encroaching sands and the occasional crumbling ziggurat still defied the winds.
He wished that Liccitia LaMont, his other (adopted) sister in law, or her Grandmother Balase had been present to investigate the magical wards they found in the centre of the ruins. Though fizzling with decay the craters and blasted tile fragments indicated that they needed to be traversed carefully. The Sorceress Loèla did her best, but the going was slow. He chuckled as he realized it. He’d gotten so used to having the authorities on magic available that even a powerful Sorceress seemed like a fresh Magical Girl by comparison.
At least the envoys didn’t try to bull their way across the tiles anymore, not since that old warhorse had disappeared in a blast of power, leaving only a sandal behind. “Commander Erien! Come quickly!” Andraeha didn’t even wait for his reply as the Melissae lifted him by the armpits and flew back the way she had come. He was glad that she’d recovered after attempting the aerial route and being zapped by a spell from the central dome. “I take it Loèla has finished removing the spells?”
Andraeha shook her head. “No, though she got pretty far before stumbling onto a safe path through the spell field. But you have to see what we found inside the dome.” She carried him to the area and then walked ahead on a pathway marked with blue paint that still was tacky enough to stick to his own sandals. It zig-zagged across the tiles in a way that must be pure torture for anyone with a Naga’s tail or an Ureonggaksi’s foot.
The interior dome was in surprisingly decent condition. Small tiles had fallen off the walls due to the explosions, but the majority of the mosaïc inside was in very good condition. Not that they could make heads or tails of it yet, but already a Grey Wolf was hunkering down aside a Virtue of learning, quietly conversing about the possible significance of the markings. Yet against the far wall was something that blew away the breath of any who looked at it.
A shape like an egg, covered in faintly luminescent blue runes formed the core, but draped over it and apparently made from the same dark material was a serpentine shape. Blue lines crossed over a sculpture of a Lamia in repose. Erien nearly bit off his own tongue at the sight. “How can this be?! These ruins are ancient enough to be from the Age of Marvels, maybe even before that! And Lamia’s didn’t appear until after The Grand Changing.” A slithering sound drew his attention seconds before an ornate hookah pipe lightly tapped his shoulder. “A mystery indeed, one we’ll need to solve right quickly… Yet not one that you should shout about so loudly.” Erthimae the Naga shook her head reproachfully even as four of her six arms busied themselves gathering components from various pouches and stuffing them into the receptacle that was connected to her pipe.
A spark of heat set the mixture alight and the Naga pulled on the hookah before blowing out a stream of vapour that filled the ruins with the smell of melted butter, toast and something that made the Grey Wolf sneeze. “Phah, the butter and the toast done to perfection only to have the cheese turn to pepper.” Erien knew it was an integral part of Naga culture to experiment with creating new contents for the hookah, but he would never understand why they insisted on not wasting any of it even if it turned out badly.
“I’d say that the structure underneath her looks… well, important in a mystical sense, though the blue lines on these arms indicate some sort of power flow.” The Virtue had led her companion outside and by the sounds of it had to conjure a steady stream of handkerchiefs to keep up with the sneezing. Erien nodded as he stepped around the statue. “Some markings also appear on her back and tail and there seems to be a connecting piece…. Oh…”
Erthimae peered around the blushing commander and chuckled. The statue was connected to the egg by her womanhood. “Definitely a Mamonme artwork I’d say, though I’m more surprised that our Lady is rubbing off on you so much.” She poked him in the chest with her hookah. “You are married to the Demon… erh, Matrika, and still you blush at this sort of thing.” Erien shook himself and shrugged. “Be that as it may, such is simply not to my tastes.” He ignored the throaty laughter that followed. “My great-aunt Athaga did not lie when she called you a man of unexpected aspects.”
She gathered her coils into a heap and reclined on them. “Make no mistake, I like you well enough commander. But I do wonder how you can be who you are with your family, no matter how many Mamonme and Celestials are now in it… You still are human, if a very wise one. Is it fate? Is it chance?” His shrug then spoke volumes. “I am who I am.” Another commotion came from the entrance to the dome as a group of envoys entered. It spoke volumes of their station and arrogance that they ignored all but the commander.
“At Salaam eth, commander Eri-en.” Erien quickly removed the frown that had appeared on his face the moment he recognized the voice. Pahdan Effein was a hardworking official according to the Sultan, but Erien detested the fawning courtier for his treatment of anyone of lesser or no rank and the hidden jabs delivered to anyone else with a smile. At Salaam eth translated officially as I greet you, but he’d learned that the official translation missed the connotation of must. As in I must do this chore, though I detest it.
“At Salaam m’eth, sir Pahdan, I trust you now believe me about cautious progress?” The man nodded graciously, holding the backs of his hands together with the fingers downward and tapping them together every other step. If he cared for Erien’s returned jab that replaced detest with overcoming in the meaning, he did not show it. “Yeeesss, but still it cost more time than it should have if more a competent Mahaab had worked on those traps.” Loèla stiffened across the room as the double insult reached her ears. Mahaab were human hedge-mages who used sand and something called a mandala drawing to glean magic from the world, nothing compared to a Sorceress who was one of the few people to able to negate those traps.
“At least you have gotten around to-” Pahdan sneezed loudly and repeatedly as Erthimae exhaled a particularly concentrated stream of vapour in his vicinity. ”You were saying?” She quipped. The envoy scowled at her before returning with a more serious gaze to Erien. “I was about to say that you have finally managed to reach this warded dome. Has the hatch to the treasury been found as well? I think it should have, Yeeeess”
Erien shook his head. “As I have said before, our expedition is not a treasure hunt. We have found a mural and a mystery.” The envoy scowled at the damaged mosaïc then and quickly padded over to the statue which he ogled with mixed greed and lust. “Our glorious Sultan has spent so many resources helping you that some recompense is in order I think…” Before he could touch or claim the statue Erien grabbed his hand with a clear end to his own patience.
“Again I reïterate that we have given compensation to the Sultan for the use of his Kiçan on this expedition that benefits all of Praxis. If you attempt to touch this potentially hazardous artifact again I will have you removed from the city.” Pahdan Effain sneered. “You should be careful whom you touch, foreign dog!” A knife flashed and Erien barely caught the hand that held it. Pahdan did not back down though and put his foot on the egg to press his attack before anyone could react.
What happened though was not what he had expected. At the touch of the envoy’s foot the runes and lines flared briefly before the egg collapsed in a shower of dust that the statue toppled into. The scholars present uttered a cry of disbelief as the ancient artifact was lost before their eyes. Pahdan had been secured by Erthimae who then bit the struggling idiot, injecting a paralytic venom into his veins.
“Gone! A work of art preserved for ages uncounted and its gone because of you! You ignorant imbecilic fool! Have you any idea HOW horrible a crime you have committed?!” Erien did not easily lose his temper, but he gritted his teeth and ordered the arrived guards to put the man in chains before the temptation to run the envoy through took control. Blast, damn and curse it all. Even if Eiraiha could somehow reform the memory of the artifact, the original was gone. Irrevocably lost as its magic had burnt itself out.
“Commander Erien! Look!” Andraeha knelt in the dust and was busy brushing dust off of a form slumped there. “She… She has a pulse! HEALER GET YOUR BUTT OVER HERE!” Erien and Erthimae could only goggle as the dusty Lamia’s arm twitched in Andraeha’s grasp. It would take until moonrise before she would awaken.