A dark form neared the black hole that rose eerily from the earth in the middle of an otherwise flat terrain. It led underground to the remains of great ruins and further to the centre of an ancient city. Tomari observed the stranger from her well-hidden alcove. The dark form stopped at the gates and looked around. The stranger’s shining eyes stopped to take in the carvings on the wall.
Tomari waited for the form to turn and leave for humans feared things they did not understand. But the stranger studied the markings closer and turned to look down the corridor. The unknown form moved into Caroon and moved directly passed her alcove without a look to his sides. Quiet as the summer wind the guardian of the gates came out from her hideout and lifted her staff to strike the unusual intruder. Suddenly the intruder spoke.
“I assume you are the gatekeeper Tomari”, a man’s voice said and the stranger turned. The man had golden hair and white eyes that shone in the torchlight.
“Who are you, stranger?” Tomari hissed with suspicion. The man gave a friendly smile.
“I am Avagan an Granwald, most honoured key of Caroon.”
“You are from the Great Forest? None of the mountain know that this city breathes the spirit of our kin”, Tomari wondered.
“I come for I have met she who the heavens look upon seeing courage and power”, the man said.
“Ranadin? How is she? And Gav?”
”She has gone from me in good health, but on her way to my home she lost her cousin.”
Tomari nodded and leaned heavily into the rock wall. Avagan did not continue for he could see the shadow of a strong woman who was held together by the last threads of a form that had become frail. Tomari stood straighter putting her weight on her staff. Despite the support the elder staggered. Avagan caught her before she fell.
“Two more corridors”, the guardian of the gates mumbled and the man followed the elder’s instructions. They came to a group of room like caves of which Tomari indicated to one. Avagan lowered the elder gently on to the bed situated in the room.
“How old are you, honoured one?” he asked. The old woman sighed with exhaustion.
“Today I am 792”, the guardian of gates informed him with pride and then breathed heavily.
“Fetch Yoning, Ranadin’s grandfather. Do not permit the council to accompany him. Follow the path of Avaintri to Faethorium, and from there take the biggest corridor and find the third cave. He will not be asleep, but he will not want to be disturbed, the stubborn old fool. He MUST come.”
Avagan nodded. In the nearest junction he found the carvings of the star cluster of Avaintri the Oceanwoman and followed the path it showed to a great hall that had many corridors leading from it. The ceiling of the hall had been painted with a material that was sensitive to the changings of the sky. On it the galaxies and planets moved. A great flash of light revealed that somewhere in the depths of the heavens a star had died.
Faethorium meant the Holy Hall and there was one of such nature in all the places the Dratoans had lived. This one was a typical representative of the architecture of holy places built during the golden age. It was perfectly round and in the middle there was a fudrithum fountain which was decorated by depictions of the city’s history. The newest carving was from the time the city was destroyed.
With much terror those devils who were born from the laughter of the world after us came into the midst of their former masters armed with rocks, swords, spears and spades. What they found, they used as weapons against us. The cruellest of them took children and weapons as their weapons using their limbs as clubs. They killed us in our beds the young pregnant mother to the bravest of the Caroon’s warriors.
After this horror had spread some of us ran away and came to safety as the city had been built upon a city and the Faethorium, the centre of our white city, the noble structure that used to stand above us before it was burned and the stones taken to build the homes of humans, was the same.
This city is Caroon, the white light and peace, and we are the last ones here. In our midst are also those who have run away from the motherland and have told us about the new horrors the humans hatred has inflicted upon our people. For the memory of our deserted streets and home this city will be known as Dunfau, oppression and war.
It is declared that none of our kin shall ever travel along the old pathways or on the earth to Ferengeti. Cruel are their ways, but without sacrifice we will die.
It was uncommon that the ceiling of the Faethorium was painted as it was built with an open roof so the heavens could be observed in their natural beauty. The biggest decoration of fudrithium was typically a statue a copy of the holy statue or another important figure. The fudrithium prima of Caroon was a tall, sleek haired man whose hair was plated with gold and eyes were diamonds.
“Auffanir Caronnis, the builder and founder of our great prison and refuge.”
The voice coming from behind Avagan was strong and echoed in the lonely emptiness of the great hall.
“Yoning”, he guessed and turned. The old man didn’t seemed surprised for a stranger to know his name.
“The only one in these parts”, the old man intoned. He approached Avagan slowly keeping a steely eye on the intruder. As he moved the elder spoke.
“No one has breached the gates of Caroon, not in the time of our guardian. Who do you think you are to be able to walk these halls?”
“The gates have not been breached and the guardian is still perfect in maintaining her post. She has sent me to get you. She says it must be only you, no other.”
Yoning huffed and stopped only a few steps away from Avagan.
“My duty is to follow the laws and traditions of our kin, and I have never shirked my duty”, the elder said decisively and Avagan was doubtful of turning his head. Taking actions in to his own hands the snakeman lurched forward grabbing the elder and pulled Yoning after him.
Yoning was surprised to find Tomari in her bead breathing with great difficulty. The weakness of the guardian increased quickly and without warning.
“She is dying”, the elder stated disbelieving. Avagan nodded.
“You are a healer, heal her”, the man insisted.
“She has decided that it is time. She wishes to leave. There is nothing I can do.”
Yoning growled angrily and turned to Tomari.
“And the gates? Who will guard them when your worthless heir has run?”
“The western gate has a successor. Bainice will take my staff and Daussa will take hers”, the old woman tried to calm, but Yoning refused to listen to her.
“You will not die.”
“Really, Yoning? When have you ever told me what I will do or not do?”
Tomari’s breathing became ever laboured. The old man did not answer.
“You should have thought of it long ago.”
Yoning stumbled to his knees and lowered his head on the guardian’s fighting chest. He shook and Avagan understood that the elder was crying like he hadn’t for countless ages. Snakekin did not have the tendency to cry, but Yoning was crying for centuries of sorrow onto the grey fabric of the snakewoman’s tunic.
Tomari lifted her hand and caressed the elder’s head making a shushing sound. Yoning lifted his head and kissed Tomari with all of his being. Avagan turned away feeling an intruder in their tender moment. He stepped into the corridor and found it filled with the citizens of the maze. Each one had a necklace on which hung a black light. The eyes present were full of sorrow and none of them questioned his. Some tried to enter, but Avagan needed only look at them significantly and they stopped.
After a long while Yoning came out and nodded solemnly. Avagan let in the first ones to say farewell to the base of their very society who was much loved. A steady line formed at the door of the cave where as one went in another came out. Some who came out had rare tears in their eyes, others wore a calm, fond smile.
As the mourners moved back to the caves surrounding the Faethorium along the path of Avaintri they looked back now slightly curious about the stranger. Then finally the last of the snakekin had gone and Avagan followed Yoning back in to the room.
Tomari was laying calmly on the bed as if she was ready to leave already. She turned her head slightly to see them. A calm smile was on the guardian’s lips to which Avagan answered, but Yoning turned his face away.
“He is coming”. Tomari said her voice unwavering and breathing now more evenly. Yoning lifted his gaze.
“No one is coming, Tomari. They have all gone.”
Yoning’s voice was harsh, but softened as his words came out.
“He is coming”, the guardian said with the same certainty that spoke of the sun rising from the east each morning. Yoning opened his mouth to protest further when a shadow cast from the door covered them. Both snakemen in the room turned to see what the source of darkness was. At the door stood a man with tattered clothes and dirty skin. His hair was auburn.
“Granna”, the man said and stumbled forward. Yoning and Avagan let him pass and the newcomer kneeled by the bed. Tomari’s smile widened. She lifted her gaunt had to wipe some of the dirt from the man’s face.
“You need a wash”, the guardian admonished. His red eyes shone with tears.
“Granna, I must…”
“Shh”, Tomari interrupted.
”Ranadin must not now, not until our people are free.”
“Ranadin will not know. Vow to me, Gav, that you will not tell her and you will make sure that she will not be told by anybody else that I am gone”, the guardian’s voice was unyielding. The man sighed.
“If that is your last wish, I vow through my honour granted by the heavens and my form granted by the earth, that I shall heed it.”
Tomari nodded and lowered her head to the pillow closing her eyes. After a few silent moments her chest did not rise, and no breath left her lips. The guardian of the gates was gone.
Great gongs echoed in the Faethorium where the snakekin of Caroon had gathered to watch the fudrithium. The gongs were only ever played in moments of great joy or sorrow. Tomari’s white-clad form had been set on a ceremonial plate of silver that was carried only by the strongest.
Those amongst the carriers were Avagan, Yoning and Gav as they had been the last ones there as the guardian had left for the stars and added her name to their multitude. The path of Avaintri the Oceanwoman was followed to come to this world, and it was the same that escorted the dead to their graves.
The ceremonial plate was carried so high that all snakekin could see the guardian’s grey braid flowing down from the edge of it. Crying and wailing mixed with the lonely song of the gongs creating the rhythm of the funeral procession that moved in along the trivain lines of the Faethorium going around the great hall in spirals. Those spirals represented the cosmos in which the Oceanwoman was the guide.
The ritual march ended at the altar that had stood in front of the fudrithium since the founding of the city. The ceremonial plate was set upon this altar. The carriers surrounded the altar in a circle to guard the body that would be there from dusk to dawn. Through all that time the snakekin could come and say their farewells to the deceased and gifts to the family. The carriers had the right to turn away those they perceived as the enemies of the deceased as the holiness and the purity of the body were vital and were not to be desecrated.
As the dawn rose the elders came carrying with them the symbol of Tomari’s status. Each of the elders kissed her forehead. They set the staff, the symbol of the guardian’s power, in Tomari’s hands and took a torch from the hand of the statue of Avaintri. The torch they lowered to the feet of the guardian.
The fabric began burning with bright flames and the elders formed their own circle around the carriers. They opened their closed wall into a half circle so that once more everyone, friends and enemies, could say the final goodbye by kissing the forehead of the burning body. The last ones to do this were the carriers of which the very last ones were those who had been dearest to the deceased.
After this they all watched as the guardian burned to ashes and the ashes to smoke until the only thing left in the flames was the sign of the guardian of the gates of Caroon. The silence remained unbroken as Bainice, the blue haired and eyed guardian of the west gate, stepped on the dais of the fudrithium and took the staff from amidst the flames.
The flames were holy and could burn those who did not deserve the sign of power. Bainice lifted the staff high above her head to show that she was indeed worthy. Not including the carriers and the elders the snakekin kneeled and lowered their foreheads to the ground to show their acceptance. The carriers bowed their upper bodies and the elders inclined their heads.
The ringing of the gongs broke the sorrow filled silence and the snakekin began to celebrate. It was in accordance to the ancient ways that no one would touch food or drink until the deceased had begun their final journey. It was time to honour the new guardian of the gates Bainice who in turn gave her symbol of power to her daughter Daussa.
“So you decided to make words into truth. I am greatly curious about what happened with those bandits”, Avagan said when peace had returned to the mazes. Gav looked at him with interest as they traversed the path of Avaintri towards Gav’s family’s new home that was situated closer to the Faethorium.
“How did you know about that?”
“I know everything”, Avagan insisted and Gav eyed him suspiciously. The snakeman’s eyes shone mischievously as he slapped Gav in the back.
“I am only kidding. The truth is a very lovely one of our kin climbed my tree without permission.”
“What happened to the human?” Gav wondered and irritation towards Avagan flashed in his blood red eyes.
“Survived and is currently travelling north with Ranadin. Last I heard Ranadin was in the sleep without rest and the human had been sent to Ferengeti as the king’s new favourite”, the snakeman said and Gav saw red. Before he knew what he was doing his hands were around the stranger’s throat and he was pinning Avagan to the wall.
“She is unconscious?!” Gav’s angry shout echoed about the corridor’s rocky words like a caged animal.
“It is not my fault, neither is it the human’s. They were good friends”, Avagan assured him, but Gav’s grip did not let.
“Friends? No Dratoan, especially Ranadin, is friends with a human. They killed her parents, as they did mine. Don’t you dare lie to me about her. She would not betray us!” Gav raged. The older snakeman observed him carefully.
“You would call it betrayal. Why did you then rush to save the human when he called for help?” he challenged and Gav lowered his eyes in defeat.
“I thought it was a draac.”
The man’s voice was quiet.
“You are lying.”
“I am not.”
“No!” Gav roared and punched the wall. Avagan gave the young man a knowing look and released himself calmly.
“A draac can be easily recognised from a human, even if one has never seen a draac. Their hair is messy, the skin yellowish and their eyes lizard-like, shadows of human eyes, pale and almost white. They have odd curving claws that glimmer even in darkness.”
Avagan had begun sketching into the soft ground a picture that looked to Gav a lot like Ung. The snakeman then moved his hand and began to draw a new image.
“We, the snakekin, are a regal race that surpasses the draacs and the humans in intelligence and beauty as well as strength and innovativeness. Our hair is always smooth and reflects the colour of our eyes. Our eyes are the greatest difference between us and the others. When we were dragons our forms were covered with a scale armour and all had their distinct colour. Our eyes have taken that colour.
“Other physical differences are our sharp nails that cannot be seen, but felt and the slight tapering of our ears which also requires closer inspection. And we never seem sick or tired always flawless.”
The new picture was a lot like Avagan, but Gav could see familiar features from other Dratoans.
“The human is between us and the draacs even though draacs are combination of our and humans. They have many different skins and hairs. Where we are bright and vibrant and the draacs pale, they are both. A human child of only a few months age is most like us, as is the elder most like a draac.”
The third image was a tidied up version of the bandits that had taken him. Gav thought surprisingly that not all humans could be ugly or evil. He then quickly shoved away such thought. Avagan continued without seeing this.
“There are two types of draacs: ancu and alte, the low and high. These days there are only ancudraacs, but during the Dratoan Empire there were altedraacs who melted back into our people after the destruction of the empire. The difference of alte and ancudraacs lies in their physical form instead of their abilities. Sometimes altedraacs were so beautiful that they exceeded even our kin in their beauty. Their eyes were bright and their hair varied as the humans’ does, yet brighter, though their skin had the same yellowish tint. Yet draacs are short-lived. They cannot live older than 160 when humans live in very rare cases to the age of a 100.”
The fourth figure was very beautiful and Gav opened his mouth to speak. Avagan’s continuing presentation interrupted his line of thought.
“The inheritance of humans and snakekin have never melded peacefully. This can be seen in the way a snakeman cannot impregnate a human female, yet a human male can impregnate a snakewoman. It is their feelings towards each other that determine if the draac will be an ancu or altedraac in physical form. Negative emotions are guaranteed to produce an ancudraac, when the greatest love can create a beautiful altedraac. This is why humans capture snakewomen. Ancudraacs are perfect workers, they are diligent, loyal, and obedient and are also happy with very little when altedraacs are the nobles of the species. They are strong-willed and wilful.”
Gav observed Avagan with a sort of resentful respect. There was not only hate between the kin of men and snakekin, but it was the existence of the ancudraacs that seemed to be the continuing presence of a grudge that might have otherwise been forgotten by time.
“You wish to know why I helped the human”, Gav said and white eyes turned to him pinning him a sharp gaze.
“I ask of you then this: how can humans treat a youngling of their own kin with such cruelty?”
“Humans are naturally greedy. If they see the use of something, they seize the opportunity with a desperate hunger”, Avagan explained dispassionately.
“That is barbaric! How is it you know so much of their ways?”
The inquiry didn’t come as a great surprise to the golden haired snakeman.
“I am of the mountains, I have seen the passing of our form from the rulers of the heavens to these earth bound ones, in my youth I have seen the turning of our great hearts to vanity and riches, I have seen the cruelty of our race, our rise and our fall. And I have always observed the different kins that walk upon this land, and as our kin retreated to the mountains after the fall of the Empire, I have observed the humans and the draacs as they thrive.”
Gav did not react for a while, silenced by the words of the ancient snakeman.
“Who was the youngling?”
“Ell of Adanor, the nephew of the king of Deles and a squire.”
Gav made a choked sound. His eyes almost popped from their sockets and his mouth opened and closed dumbly like the mouth of a fish as he battled to compose himself.
“Why do we delay? Ranadin is amongst humans, should we not mount a rescue?” he asked carefully. Avagan shook his head.
“If she is alive after being exposed, she will continue to do so.”
But even Avagan’s voice did not hold its usual confidence and brevity.
“Regardless, we shall travel in some days to the region she resides, but we will not interfere with her fate which has made her path solitary time and time again. This is her quest.”
“And you come to this conclusion how?”
Avagan was tiring of the incessant questioning of the ceris. Gav had passed his adleten, but compared to Avagan’s vast age, the redhead was as young as a baby.
“She left these chambers without the blessing of the elder council, a quest that should be venerated and aided by all our kin, then not far into the first day of your journey you, her closest ally, disappear, and now the young human has been removed from her presence as well. This is why I did not join her myself.”
Gav wanted to ask the elder how he knew all this, but stayed silent as he sensed the elder’s irritation.