Here Be Dragons
This morning we set off from Greenheath, heading south. The Merians, and specifically the Gyb diplomats who have been our escorts, have treated us with impeccable kindness. Despite Meria’s recent devastation at the hands of one of their other ruling families, it is pleasing to see that hospitality has not suffered in their allied lands.
Our journey now wends south, beyond Gyb borders. As the landscape around us begins to change, to become the uncharted swamps of Tchudeka, I cannot help but feel a frisson of excitement mixed with a goodly twist of apprehension.
Falk lifted his quill from the parchment and stared at his diary entry critically, then nodded. He corked the inkwell and stowed both it and the pen away in his pack, then blotted the diary and closed it with a snap.
“Done already?” The man leaning on the cart’s sides raised an eyebrow and scratched his nose with one grimy finger. “Good.”
“If only all jobs could be completed as quickly as you wished,” Falk said, stowing his pack under the narrow bench that ran across the cart’s bed. “I’m ready to get underway, Vick.”
“‘Bout time.” Vick nodded. “Keeping these poor men waiting.”
Falk looked over at their escort, four soldiers in green tabards standing next to the giant cats they rode. He nodded. “I’d like to thank you again for your help. Please pass my thanks back to Countess Gita.”
They nodded and mounted, and Falk watched as they trotted off back to the north.
“Right.” Vick moved round to the front of the wagon and slapped the scaled side of one of the giant lizards tethered there. “Get, boys!”
With a flick of its horned head, the lizard set off at a speed barely faster than walking. Falk gave himself a minute to reacquaint himself with the rocking, jolting motion, then cracked open the lid on one of a dozen boxes that were tied down in the middle of the wagon’s bed.
Inside, the tightly-rolled papers jostled for space. He flicked through them, then drew one into the light and unrolled it. Nodding with satisfaction, he sat back.
The map on which he had spent so long was beginning to soften and tear at the edges, but that was to be expected. For every day of their travels, he had compared his map with the countryside, making changes where necessary. New ink, darker than the brown etchings of the previous Guild cartographer, dotted the paper.
With a finger, he traced their path, down from Johalland and through the mountain pass, then through the northern Sanglier duchy. The Gyb contingent had picked them up as they crossed the Falls River that separated the two territories, then led them down through the Gyb towns of Meadowdown and Greenheath. Falk’s eyes arrived at their approximate current location, the map becoming vague at this point, and he took out a pencil to sketch in their surroundings.
The rolling green hills had been steadily transforming into something wilder for several hours already, occasional outcroppings of grey rock breaking up the lush grasslands, covered in moss and a profusion of multicoloured lichen. Ahead, like some sort of predator, crouched the swamps that marked the borders of Tchudeka. Tall oaks and elms, overgrown with arching vines of ivy, twisted together to form one living organism, and the way ahead was increasingly littered with pools of still water that made for boggy footing.
Falk shivered and pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. He twirled his pencil absently in his fingers as he considered the unexplored mass that lay in the south, before them. Few had even mapped the extent of Tchudeka; the coast was clearly marked, plotted decades earlier as someone’s life work, but the interior was… unknown. Some anonymous scholar in ages past had simply marked the empty space with a crude picture of a lizard and the monicker ‘Here be dragons’.
“Gonna be slow going,” Vick said, breaking Falk from his reverie. “Wagon’s not gonna make it through easy. Last chance to say we don’t need it.”
Falk shook his head and sighed. “Would that we could; if we abandon the gear, we’re abandoning the mission.” He lay the map carefully back inside its box and swung himself down off the wagon. “I’ll give you a hand, or at least another pair of eyes.”
Vick grunted, but didn’t argue.
We’ve made so little progress, it’s almost as though the swamp itself fights us. One minute it’s solid footing, the next water up to my shoulders. And the insects; tiny ones, luckily, though I’ve heard tales of giant insects, infected by the natural yellowdust in the soil. Vick’s complained, of course, but Vick always complains.
The only ones doing well are Kek and Tak, our mounts. They’ve pulled the wagon without any fuss for so long, and now that we’re in the swamps they seem to have found a new energy - almost as though they belonged here.
Falk froze in the act of brushing the crumbs from his beard and stared hard at the undergrowth. His eyes darted from side to side, seeing nothing but the dense undergrowth. Huge shrubs - silky dogwood, sweetpepper, and beneath them heads of leafy marshcabbage - camouflaged everything in a miasma of greens, but something had definitely moved out there. A shadow, darker than the surrounds, had flickered across his vision. His fingers slowly tightened around the hilt of the small knife at his belt before he remembered that they were explorers now.
“Vick,” he murmured. The big man looked over, chewing the last of his bread.
“Something’s out there.”
Vick peered out in the direction Falk had indicated. “Can’t see nothin’.” He turned back. “Awful jumpy, ain’tcha?”
Not taking his eyes from where he had seen the motion, Falk got to his feet and jumped down from the wagon. “I’m just… careful. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Don’t go far.”
Choosing his steps carefully, Falk walked past the resting bulk of Kek’s body. The lizard lifted its massive head, ridges of bone giving its ridges a vicious sharpness, and as he passed Kek watched him go.
Falk edged around a pool of water and took a long step between two large bushes. Beyond, the swamp seemed to stretch on forever, endless branching corridors of vibrant life. Everywhere, insects scurried to and fro, most smaller than a speck of dust, the occasional dragonfly soaring in between the branches. He stared around, slowly turning, but nothing leapt out at him; nothing big enough to have cast a shadow.
He frowned and backed out of the space, eyes still poking at every patch of shade. He stepped back through the bushes, and suddenly found himself tumbling backwards as his foot met nothing but air. With only time for a strangled yelp, Falk plunged into the still pool he had so carefully avoided before. In panic, he kicked at the water and then sat up, spluttering.
The water was ankle-deep, and as it seeped into his leather trousers he swore. Vick, on his feet and weapon drawn, began to chuckle, the lizards performing their own wheezing laugh, and Falk scowled.
“Don’t be so wet,” Vick said, failing to smother his laughing. “Get over here and warm up.”
Half an hour later, bundled up in a blanket, Falk’s shivering finally stilled. Vick passed him a cup of whisky, poured from the small flask he had retrieved from his bag.
“Here. Get this in ya.”
The liquor was peaty and bit at the back of his throat, but the warmth spread down his body as he swallowed. “Thanks,” he grunted.
“Think nothin’ of it.”
Falk took another sip, his gaze falling on the lizard mounts. “Y’know, I never asked,” he said.
“Where did you get them from, anyway?”
“Kek and Tak? I didn’t get them, as such. Traded them when they were just regular-sized,” Vick said. “The town chemick wanted to see if it could be done, if they could be uplifted, and he offered to do one for free. I told him it was both or neither, and he took ‘em both.”
“Aren’t they dangerous?”
“Not to us. I raised ‘em, see. To others though… they’ve got a few tricks. Reckon they’ve brung down a deer with some sort of poison spit before, but…“ Vick shrugged. “I ain’t never seen them do it. And they ain’t inclined to show me. Can’t say I can complain; they’re smart, strong, and we’ve worked out a sort of language for most things between us.”
As if in response, Kek lifted his head and moved his front legs into a few of the signs Falk had seen them using. Vick watched, then nodded.
“He says that, if it makes you feel any better, they feel like something’s been watching them too.” The big man’s expression darkened. “Oi! That doesn’t make me feel any better!”
The lizards gave their wheezy laugh again, and Falk drew the edges of his blanket around himself ever more tightly.
It’s been difficult to do much more than mark the map as ‘swamp’ for long miles, but finally we arrived at more solid ground. Almost as though the thick swamp provided some sort of boundary marker, the land beyond was much more habitable - a jungle alive with life of all sorts. Monkeys, apes, rodents able to fly using membranes attached to their limbs, birds of incredible colour, even fish teeming the streams.
I cannot, however, let the exceptional sights distract me from my main concern. Several times in the past day I have felt under scrutiny, and I am certain I have seen movement of something man-shaped. I voiced these concerns to Vick, Kek and Tak, but they cannot corroborate. However, it seems that we are not alone in the forest. In the last two hours we found a track, the kind made by people moving through on a regular basis. I can only assume that we are on a trail towards the infamous lizardfolk.
“-And I’m tellin’ you it’s not safe, Falk.” Vick folded his arms, the wide sleeves of his tunic hanging down across his stomach. “No-one’s ever had a good time with the lizardfolk.”
“I’m not trying to meet them. I’m trying to map this place so that future explorers and ambassadors and the like can get here with more certainty.”
“And when some scale-arsed bastard plucks the map off your corpse, what then?”
Falk shook his head. “I’ve done my homework, Vick. All the previous encounters ended in violence, whether from the lizardfolk or the Merian soldiers - soldiers, mind - that were sent. As a result, no-one from Meria has tried to come in here for any other reason. In fact, the Gyb recently encroached on the swamp - another military action.” He frowned. “What? Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Because I can’t believe I’ve heard such bloody nonsense come out of a man’s mouth before,” Vick said, gesticulating wildly. “You expect them to meet with us peacefully when other humans are tromping over their land? God above, Falk, are you soft in the head or just thick?”
“Now hold on-“
Vick wasn’t listening, but was tugging at the Kek’s harness, trying to heave him round. “Come on, boy, time to go. Falk, you’re on your own if you want t’go on.”
“Vick, this is silly,” Falk said. “You knew the risks coming here. We’ve worked together before-“
“I thought this was going to be a stealthy mission. Not waltzing up the damned main road and straight into the city. You never said nothin’ about that.”
Falk stared at Vick’s bright-red face and bit down on his retort. “You’re right,” he said instead. “It’s not very sensible. And it’s your expertise in matters like this is what I need, Vick.”
Caught off-guard, Vick paused. “Well… good. I mean, it’s not safe.”
“Let’s get off the road and work out our next step. Come on, boys, up you get.”
The two lizards turned a lazy eye back at the men and then smacked their lips, long tongues tasting the air briefly. Then they wiggled their legs and settled further down onto the dirt road.
Vick’s movements had become more frantic, tugging at the harness, then trying to push the lizards bodily. They simply stared up the road. Falk knelt down by Tak’s head and followed the line of his gaze. A cold feeling washed over him.
“The road. Look at the road.”
“What-“ Vick turned, the words dying on his lips as he saw the squat humanoid figure that had stepped out onto the road ahead. “Oh… oh god.”
It had bandy legs, thick with muscle; curved claws emerged from the scaly feet that were matched in size by those on its fingers. Its upper body seemed to be nearly triangular in shape, broad shoulders supporting a huge grasp. Its snout, lined with razor-sharp teeth, was almost comically large, and beady eyes watched the two men warily. Several gold adornments pierced the skin on the top of its head.
Vick stepped forward, one hand on the hilt of the knife sheathed on his belt.
“You’d best stay away,” he shouted.
“Vick, wait!” But it was too late. The lizard-person was gone, away into the undergrowth.
Falk ran up and grabbed at Vick. “What are you doing?”
“Just… wait, why am I explaining myself to you?”
Gesturing to the now-empty road, Falk felt his face flush with anger. “Our first contact with the locals and you had to go and make it a fight! Idiot!”
Vick shoved Falk’s shoulder. “Don’t you call me an idiot. I’m not the one thinking to map out a place where everythin’s tryin’ to kill me!”
“We don’t know that,” Falk said, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Fine. Listen, we’re getting off the road, and let’s just hope that we haven’t stirred up a hornet’s nest here.” He looked back at the empty dirt road, the idyllic view suddenly fraught with danger. “Or a lizard nest.”
We’ve struck deeper into Tchudeka’s interior, and have discovered something of great cultural importance, if not a waypoint for my mapping. A large stone structure, clearly old, with many carved images of two-legged lizards and larger four-legged ones in various poses. There was no door to the building, and what we found inside was astonishing…
The interior almost glowed from the light of torch Falk was holding, as the flicker of flame licked at the gold coating every surface. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires; stones of every hue, size, and shape were dotted around, a thousand-thousand winking dots giving the impression that the room was a starry night sky.
“This is…” Vick said, staring round in incredulity. “This is a king’s ransom.”
“More than that,” Falk said. He moved to the centre, where a statue of a huge eight-legged lizard stood, arrayed entirely in gold. It was larger than their mounts, and its scales were individually carved in fine whorls and swirls. It had three tails, each one curving a different way, and two heads. He gently ran his fingers over the finely-detailed teeth that adorned one of the heads, the metal cool to the touch. “It’s some sort of shrine. Think of what this tells us about the lizardfolk. About their culture, their way of life.”
“Do they just have this much gold lyin’ around?”
“Humans would, if we pooled it all.”
Vick shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
From outside, one of their mounts gave a barking cry. “We’ll be right out,” Vick called, not taking his eyes from the riches on display. “In a minute.”
Another bark, and then the sound of movement. Falk gestured to Vick. “Go check that. I need to get some of this information down.”
“Why? It’s not map information, is it?”
“This could be the find of the century - no, the millennium,” Falk said, his eyes dancing with excitement. “I’ll be remembered in scholarly works the world over for this.”
“We will, y’mean,” Vick said, slapping him on the shoulder none-too-softly. “Joint venture, and all.”
Falk nodded absently, already scribbling in this journal. A thousand thoughts ran through his head - what his mentor would say; they might be able to afford the nice inns; what might women think of someone who-
“Falk. Better get out here.”
“Just a minute!”
Something in Vick’s voice made Falk look back, out the entrance, to see Vick with his hands in the air. “Vick, what are you doing?”
He moved closer, and froze as he saw what held Vick’s attention. Two lizardfolk, long spears tipped with obsidian in scaly hands, were menacing him. Two more stepped out, coming to stand next to the first pair, and Vick made a small sound at the back of his throat. These ones were bigger than the one on the road had been, their shoulders much more broad and with muscles rippling under scales. Tall orange frills sprang from the tops of their heads and ran down their backs, ending at the loincloths they wore.
“Beside us too,” Vick murmured. Falk turned his head sharply to see that there were several to the side of the shrine, and on the other side as well.
They were surrounded.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know, Vick.” Falk swallowed hard, past the lump in his throat. “I don’t know.
The lizardfolk moved in, walking eerily in lockstep, spears down.
The lizardfolk have had us imprisoned in a well-secured stone building, guarded of course. Four days now. We were in darkness for most of that, the window blocked off, but just this morning we saw the sun as they unblocked it. They’ve let us have our packs, so I’ve been taking solace in my maps and letters from home. No weapons, of course, and they took our boots. Even if we escaped, it’d be hard to get around. They brought us what felt like miles, a forced march with sacks of some rough material over our heads. I have some small idea of where we are, but I’d need to find high ground to confirm it.
They feed us, regular meals, and water. The food is some sort of vegetable mash; it’s bland, but filling. There were small, hard loaves with the last meal, so at least we’ve learned that they have the knowledge of baking bread, albeit not very well. They don’t talk to us, though, which is ominous in and of itself.
Vick’s angry, beyond reason. I don’t blame him. It’s my fault we’re here, and I’m not sure I can get us out. I’d hoped that, after a day or so, he’d calm down, but there’s this simmering resentment that boils off of him.
What confuses me is that we’re still alive. If they were going to kill us, surely they would have done it there on the road?
Falk closed his journal and looked over at his friend. Vick was slumped against the wall, staring hollowly at nothing, the set of his chin denying all attempts at talk.
Slipping the notebook away in his pack, Falk stood and started to pace the room again. It was small, made of well-hewn grey stone slabs that had very little perceptible join between them and no visible mortar. There was a window, ten feet up and far too small to escape from, and a series of wider slabs poked out of the wall to form a thin ladder.
“Going to climb the ladder, Vick,” Falk said tentatively. “Can I get a boost?” The man grunted, and Falk nodded. “Right, right. Not to worry. I’ll be ok.”
He set his toes against the first step and dug his fingers in higher up. It was slow going, the slabs barely big enough for human fingers to get a purchase, but as soon as he was able to grab on to the windowsill he pulled himself up and stared out into the lizardfolk village.
The prison hut was on one side of an open square, stone buildings surrounding an open area. Everywhere there were lizardfolk, and Falk wondered at the sight, so similar to any human settlement. Some carried baskets of fruit or meat, while others pushed hand carts laden with produce, wood or stone. On one side, several children ran and played in the dust, throwing a leather ball to each other. Every lizard, even the children, were decorated, necklaces of beads and precious metals around their necks, draped on their heads, even rings on fingers and toes.
“There’s a fortune here,” he murmured. “No wonder they protect it so well.”
He narrowed his eyes as he looked from scaly hide to blunt head; some of them had exceptionally bright colouration, orange or blue, while others had muted browns, greens and greys. Likewise, the brighter ones had thicker tails, but there didn’t seem to be any obvious differences between males and females.
He gazed around the settlement, which was bordered by trees on all sides, and then gasped as his perception widened. So huge that he had barely even seen it - that it had seemed like part of the sky - lay an enormous stone pyramid. Constructed in step-like layers of some muddy stone, it lay beyond the tree line around the village, soaring into the sky, each layer vividly decorated with murals and gemstones that sparkled in the morning sunlight.
“Incredible,” Falk murmured. He wriggled, trying to free an arm to get a better grip, and felt his toes slip off the thin sliver of stone he was balanced on. With a yell, he slipped down, fingers scrabbling for purchase on the smooth rock, and he fell backwards into empty space.
In a second, Vick was under him and the two men crashed to the floor, the jolt enough to knock the wind from Falk. He groaned as he tried to roll off.
“Vick,” he said, then coughed. “You caught me.”
“Wasn’t just going to let you fall,” Vick said. “Now get off me, you fat bastard.”
The two men disentangled themselves and Falk leaned against the wall, forcing himself to take slow breaths. Vick clambered to his feet, wincing as he probed his body. “Gonna have a few new bruises there.” He shook his head. “Listen, Falk. I want to tell you something.”
Falk motioned for him to continue and Vick sighed, looking around, up, anywhere but at Falk’s eyes. “These weeks we’ve been out here… it’s been fun, y’know? Like, yeah, there’s been times when things could have gone better. But if I’d followed my first instinct when you came callin’, I’d probably be sat in the pub right now drinkin’ myself fat and stupid. I’d never have seen all the sights we have, met all the people… and you’re not so bad, once you get to know you.”
A sly grin quirked at the edges of Vick’s mouth, and Falk couldn’t help but smile. He crossed the room and put an arm around Vick’s shoulders. “Well now, it’s been a pleasure. But we’re not talking like this is the end, now. We’re still alive, and if they’re keeping us alive it’s for a reason.”
“Did you see anything useful? Out the window?”
“There’s a village out there, just like back home. And a huge pyramid thing. Must be the highest thing for miles around… If I could get to the top of that, I might be able to get the lay of the land and get us out of here.”
Vick nodded. “Did you… did you see Kek and Tak?”
Falk shook his head. “No. But… they’re lizards. It doesn’t seem like lizardfolk would harm their own.” He frowned. “Perhaps they-“
Falk’s mouth snapped shut as a rattling sounded at the wooden door, chains being unshackled and let drop to the ground. Vick beckoned him over and they stood, side by side, ready for whatever was coming through the door.
It swung open to reveal a lizardman wearing a huge head-dress, feathers fanning out from carved wood in the shape of a sun. Bright gems, rubies and sapphires, dotted the headpiece. He held a stick in his hand, a carved lizard head with glittering diamond eyes set into it.
The lizardman - probably the chief, Falk realised - pointed at them, gesturing them out of the prison house.
“Out,” he said. His voice, the first they had heard, was sibillant and wheezy.
Vick stepped forward and Falk grabbed his arm.
“What if it’s a trap?”
“Do we have a choice?” Vick shook himself free and walked out. After a moment’s hesitation, Falk followed.
Several burly lizards were stood in a semicircle and, as the humans walk into the middle, they formed a rough circle around them. The one with the head-dress, Chief, came behind, and as he looked back he saw two smaller lizards rush into the cell and come out a moment later clutching their packs. They brought up the rear, the large bags seeming almost comically huge in their slender claws.
As they moved through the village, more of the lizardfolk joined the procession until even the children had abandoned their game, forming up into a rough column that wound between the houses and into the trees. The entire thing was done in almost complete silence, with only the sound of dozens of feet on grass.
“We’re heading for the pyramid,” Falk said. Almost immediately, something prodded him in the back and he looked back. Chief was poking him with his staff, and as Falk looked back the lizard barked something at him.
“Silence,” the elder hissed.
Falk nodded, and they passed into the trees.
The path was clearly well-trodden, marked at regular intervals by small stone cairns, each one holding a candle in a little nook. Signs had been carved onto the grey stones that made up the cairns, regular and oft-repeated enough that they could only be primitive writing. Then, before he could try and divine its meaning, they were through the trees and into a large area dominated by the pyramid.
Up close it was even more impressive, soaring into the sky in a way that seemed almost to loom over them in an impossible way. A set of steps had been carved into the face of the towering edifice and the guards in front of them parted, stopping at the bottom.
Falk looked back to see that what looked like the entire village had been following them and was now fanned out, six deep on all sides, watching. Some had begun a low chant, the harmonics oddly jarring, and most had closed their eyes and begun to sway.
The leader stepped forward, pointed his stick to the top of the pyramid and then at the humans. Vick looked at Falk.
“What do we do?”
“We climb,” Falk said. “At least this way I might be able to get an idea of where we- ow! Stop hitting me with that!”
The two men began to climb, and after a few steps Falk looked back. The lizardfolk had all stayed at the bottom, the leader now swaying and singing along with them.
Vick scowled. “What the hell is this place?”
“Something spectacular,” Falk said, and resumed his climb.
The steps were small, designed for lizard feet, and several times the two men stumbled. As they climbed higher, the whistling wind began to overcome the humming, cooing song from the lizards, and as if in answer the song grew in intensity until it became a torrent of noise. Halfway up, Vick grabbed at Falk’s arm.
“I need a moment,” he said, turning and sitting on a step. “Not used to this.”
“Can’t be too long,” Falk replied, pointing down at the bottom. Chief had broken off his song and was staring up at them. “I don’t know how long it will take that one to get up here, but if he hits me against with that stick I’ll be looking to kick him right back down again.”
Vick grinned and wiped the sweat that had sprung up on his face. “Come on then. One last effort.”
Their steps became leaden as they climbed still further, and as they neared the top a structure at the pyramid’s peak came into view. Smaller than the top layer, it was a stone cube-shaped framework of the same muddy-brown stone, draped all about with cloth of incredibly vivid colour. Inside, piles of cushions filled the space and on the cushions lay two large lizards.
“Tak! Kek!” Vick ran forward, his exhaustion forgotten, and into the enclosed space. “We didn’t know what had happened to you!”
Falk stepped forward, hope bursting in his breast, but stopped short when he saw a movement off behind one of the stone struts. Peering out from behind it was a short, thin lizardwoman. She was covered from head-to-claw in bright patterns of scales, red over the dull yellowish caste of the rest of her body. Rings had been artfully pierced through parts of the skin on her head, and her fingers each held simple gold claw-caps.
As he started towards her, she ducked behind the pillar again, and he smiled. Reaching out one hand towards her, he beckoned. “Come out here. We don’t bite.”
“Careful,” Vick said. “We don’t, but she might.”
The lizardgirl stepped out into the light, and Falk realised she was smaller than a human child, and thinner by far than any other. She was, perhaps, beautiful, if in an alien fashion. Slender fingers gave way to sharp claws.
“Do you understand me?”
She cocked her head to one side, then flapped her mouth. The sound was similar to a bird, a sort of squawking, but with a definite higher register than the males down below.
“I guess they don’t all know how to talk to us… Any ideas, Vick?” When he didn’t get an answer, Falk looked over at where Vick was staring around at the shelter. “What’s… oh. Oh my.”
Vick nodded slowly as the two men took in the sheer amount of wealth on display. Every corner was overflowing with pots, bowls, necklaces, rings, coins from a dozen countries; gemstones flowed out of small sacks, glittering in the sun. To the side sat several small clay pots that looked oddly out of place until Falk opened one, revealing it to be full of yellowdust - enough of the chemical for the pots to be worth more than all the other riches on display.
Vick tore his eyes away from the scene and began to move his arms in the jaunty sign language he shared with the lizard mounts. He nodded a couple of times, translating their response.
“This is… well, I didn’t recognise the sign they used for her name. She’s a sort of an attendant… or a guard. A… Hand. Seems the lizardfolk think that Kek and Tak are… lords?”
“Not lords, but that’s what the sign is… More like… a higher class of people, in the same way that lords are to us. Fangs... That class of lizard is called Fangs, apparently.” He stood up and shrugged. “I guess, it stands to reason that they have uplifted lizards here, same as we do. Apparently they’ve been treated well. We have them to thank for how we’ve been treated, by the way.” Vick shook his head and smiled ruefully. “They vouched for us.”
“So… now what?”
Vick nodded at the view from the summit. “Can you work out where we are, and how to get back?”
Falk slapped his thigh. “Dammit, I hadn’t even looked. I’d been so caught up in… hang on.”
The two men went to the edge of the platform, and it was a long moment before either of them was able to look at anything but the sheer drop in front of them. They were high enough up that, once they started tumbling down the side, they wouldn’t be alive when they hit the bottom. When he did look up, though, it was all Falk could do to stare around, his mouth open in amazement.
The jungle extended in every direction for miles, broken occasionally by clearings and winding paths or rivers. The village they had come from was the closest, but further away they could see larger buildings in their own gaps in the undergrowth, each one different in its own way. There were more pyramids as well, poking out at irregular intervals. Some had enormous fires burning at their peaks, while others had enclosed buildings on the topmost layers. In the distance, a column of smoke announced a volcano or some other source of incredible heat.
The view extended to the north as far as the end of the swamp, the flatlands of Gyb territory appearing just before the horizon, while to the south the trees seemed to go on forever. To the west, many miles away, lay the sea, serried groups of islands forming an archipelago. To the east, eventually, the mountains rose up as they did in Meria and Johalland, a hard barrier between the temperate regions of the countries and the wasteland at the centre of the continent.
Falk nodded, flicking his attention back to their nearest surroundings. “This is amazing. If I had my pencil and scrolls, I could map most of the country from here. Access to each of these pyramid things would pretty much solve the problem.” He looked back at Vick. “I can get us home, certainly, but we’d be giving up on an incredible opportunity! Tchudeka’s never been mapped, and we could-“
Vick was shaking his head. “You’re kiddin’, right? We get captured and locked up for four days, and you want to stay here?”
“We could ask the lizardfolk… the people down in the village if we could stay. We’re friends with lords, after all.” Falk peered down at the bottom of the steps and made a small noise. “Actually, we might not have to. They’re coming up here. All of them.”
“The entire village?”
The attendant girl made a squawking noise, and Vick watched as Tak translated. “Apparently they’re coming to make an offering.” He paled as Tak’s movements became sharper, more urgent. “No, they’ve made an offering… It’s us, Falk. They offered us to Tak and Kek to eat. This Hand here is wondering why they haven’t already eaten us.”
“That’s ridiculous. They wouldn’t eat us.” Falk stared at the lizards, who blinked at him slowly. “Would they?”
“No, thank goodness. But apparently the lizardfolk are coming to kill us, right now, in some sort of ceremony.” Vick reached out and grabbed his wrist. “Falk, we need to go.”
Vick moved to Kek’s side, holding the horny protuberances around her head. “Forget it! We need to go. Now!” He swung himself up onto her back.
Immediately, the attendant began barking angrily. She crouched, growling, then swept up a golden dagger from the floor and charged forwards, its glittering point aimed at Falk’s stomach. He stumbled backwards, the edge of the platform too close. She barked with every strike, then threw the knife at him. Before he could stop himself, Falk leapt backwards and into empty air.
At Vick’s shout, Tak leapt up and flicked his tongue out, an immense rope that flashed past the lizardgirl and wrapped around Falk’s waist twice. His fall abruptly came to a stop, and then he was jerked forward as Tak pulled him in. Pulled back across the platform, Falk fell to the ground in front of Tak.
“Come on, man! Onto their backs!”
Falk nodded, struggling to his feet. His legs felt like they were made of paper, but he crawled up onto Tak’s broad back, grasping at the lizard’s neck.
“Go! Go now!”
The two mounts leapt forward, a vertigo-inducing movement that took them over the edge and out into space. Falk screamed as the ground lurched under him, and then the lizards landed on stone, their feet securely grasping the stone. A moment to rebalance, and then another leap threw them down several more flights of stairs, level with the advancing villagers. Falk, jerked forward by the sudden stop, had a startled flash of the stick-waving Chief, his mouth opening and closing in incoherent rage, while behind him the rest of the village were, at turns, making angry fists or throwing their hands out in useless stopping motions. Then the mounts bounded down again, taking them almost to ground level.
As soon as they hit dirt, Tak and Kek were away, off into the jungle heading north. Freed of the wagon’s weight they ran at a terrifying pace, tree branches whipping past fast enough that Falk found himself constantly ducking. In the end, he hunkered low over Tak’s back and clung on, his eyes closed.
Their flight lasted several minutes, and then without warning they burst into a small opening and skidded to a halt. In the distance, but getting closer by the second, the sounds of pursuit through the jungle, bearing down on them. The lizard mounts, panting with exertion, shook the men off and pointed to the small stone building in the centre of the clearing, signing urgently.
“I recognise this,” Falk said. “We were here a few days ago - the shrine. This is where they snatched us. What are they saying?”
“They say to go inside and… what?”
“That can’t be right,” Falk said. “You’re reading their signs wrong.”
“Apparently I am,” Vick said, slowly shaking his head. “They don’t want us to go inside the shrine. They want us to go inside them-”
“I’m not doing that.” Falk folded his arms.
Vick looked from his friend to his mount. He slowly knelt down on the grass and laid down. “Do what you have to do,” he said. “If it’s the only way.”
The lizard mounts bobbed up and down, snapping angrily at Falk, who began to back away. “No way. Whatever it is, I don’t want to!”
Tak hissed in annoyance, rearing up.
At that moment, the lizardfolk in pursuit caught up, crashing out of the undergrowth. Several were clutching lit torches now, some with spears and others with what was clearly farming equipment.
Falk turned to run.
Without warning, Tak coughed, spitting a colourless liquid, a projectile that landed perfectly on the back of Falk’s head. He spun, legs going out from under him, and slammed into the ground. He heard another choking cough as Kek sent a glob full into Vick’s face. Falk struggled to move, but the only motion he could manage was a gentle rise and fall of his chest. It wasn’t enough, as he desperately tried to suck in more air. At the periphery of his vision, he saw movement at the edges of the clearing.
The feather-adorned Chief shoved through the crowd, barking something and pointing at the shrine. He took a step forward, grabbing a lit torch from one of the villagers, and then stopped as Tak and Kek stood in his path.
Chief pointed to the shrine in which the two men cowered and spat something at Tak, who raised himself up onto his back legs, towering over the villagers. Tak let out three ear-shattering shrieks before both lizard mounts bent down and opened their mouths wide.
Black stars of unconsciousness danced in Falk’s vision as Tak began to consume him, from the feet up, as the lizardfolk looked on.
His last sight before the great maw closed on him was the Chief, teeth bared in a feral smile.
He awoke to darkness, and the inside of the shrine.
“You’re up. Good.”
Falk slapped his hand to his face, feeling its dryness, and sat up. “What the hell… last thing I remember was the lizards spitting something at us… and he ate us. They ate us! I thought-“
“You thought the same thing the lizardfolk were supposed to think. That the sacrifice had been carried out. But no; just a sort of paralysing spit.” Vick was almost invisible, sat with his back to the inner wall of the shrine. “And all in front of their god.”
Vick looked around the chamber. “Their god…”
“Apparently so. Their version of the Chimera just has more scales.”
Falk clambered to his feet, wincing as muscles protested. “And you couldn’t have told me any of this before it happened? I thought I was dying!”
“Be happy you’re alive.” Vick climbed to his feet. “And if you don’t mind, I think it’s time we left.”
Falk nodded, stepping out into the cool night air. From where they were curled up a few yards away, the two lizard mounts looked up at the humans’ approach.
“I suppose I should thank you,” Falk said, as Vick lovingly stroked Tak’s head with one hand. “A little more warning next time, eh?”
The lizard chirped with pleasure.
“What about my pack? The maps, the plans…”
Vick was shaking his head. “Stop complaining and consider yourself lucky to be in one piece, man!” His expression, dimly visible in the moonlight, softened. “I’ll help you try and remember it all.”
They mounted the lizards, Tak and Kek giving them a moment to adjust, and then the mounts climbed smoothly to their feet and set off through the jungle.
“What happened with the villagers?”
Vick shook his head. “They’re still convinced our friends here are Fangs. Rare enough, to judge by their reaction. Listen.”
Falk tilted his head, about to comment, then stopped. There, carried on the wind, came music. The beating of drums, some sort of stringed instrument, and an entire village raised in a chirping, cooing song. The harmonies were strange - not discordant as they had been at the pyramid, but loving, almost mournful.
Falk rode in silence for a few minutes, letting the sound wrap itself around him.
“I’d say now isn’t the right time for our people and theirs to meet, not properly,” he said at last.
Vick cocked his head to one side. “They’re not ready?”
“They have things like that shrine, all that dust… incredible riches, just out in the open. They laud their uplifts in a way that we don’t - in a way, they’re uplifted above their society, not just above other animals. They live happy, simple lives, until we get involved. Our first responses have all been violent, self-defence before any attack was made Or greed… look at how we saw that statue, as gold first and a work of art second.” He shook his head. “We’re not that sophisticated, Vick. It’s us that aren’t ready.”
Vick opened his mouth, but no argument was forthcoming, and the two men rode on in silence. Behind them, the alien harmonies of the lizardfolk filled the night, a perfect accompaniment to the wind hissing through the undergrowth.