Chapter 13 - Legend of the Golden City
The morning air was brisk and damp as the remnants of last night’s campfire continued to smolder. Rhemar and Cato remained asleep while Marcus’ spot lay vacant. The sun peered over the horizon and filtered through the shifting trees surrounding their camp. All that could be heard was the occasional scampering of forest squirrels and the twitter of a soloist blue bird greeting the sun’s warm embrace. From the solitude of the hushed morning, a trodden grizzly sludged into the camp. Dripping crimson ooze from its jowls, the bear trudged over to Cato’s still sleeping nest with a fresh slaughtered goat crunched in its locked maw.
The massive bear reached Cato and stood above the unsuspecting shaman, dripping speckles of blood onto his smudged face. Cato awoke to the sensation of warm raindrops littering his forehead and cheek. The sight of the grizzly sent crippling fear through his body. He tried to scream but nothing came. Scared too was his voice and so it fled from his throat without a hint or chime to alert the attacker of its escape. Cato mustered his little left courage and commanded his majin to surge from his mouth. A howling typhoon erupted and crashed into the mortified goat, tearing it from the grizzly’s jaws and sailing the carcass outside the perimeter of their camp. As the bear focused on the carcass, Cato shuffled backwards and jumped to his feet, ready for an assault.
Instead of roaring and slashing the obstinate shaman, the grizzly peered at Cato with dead eyes, opened its mouth with a hungry grin, and spoke with an absolute baritone, “You know that was our breakfast, right?”
Cato’s face settled into a raging fit, “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe you’re such a complete ass. I thought you were an actual fucking BEAR! What’s your major malfunction?”
The grizzly cast a sloppy smirk at the belligerent shaman and began to shift its form back to the dapper man from the previous night’s encounter, “Just trying to feed you twats, no need to shout.”
Before Cato could respond, Rhemar emerged from his tiny A-frame tent and spoke with a yawning tone in his voice, “What’s the commotion with you two?
“This psycho is completely mental. My heart almost exploded when I saw you lingering over me like you were deciding where to take the first bite, you bleeding ass.”
Marcus’ voice changed from the low baritone to a primp tenner as he spoke in a calming note, “Apologies all around, the goat was already in my mouth and I didn’t see reason in getting my hands dirty. Don’t be uptight, I’ll cook you both a noble’s breakfast. Will that unbunch your panties sire? “
Cato looked from Rhemar to Marcus with hungry reluctance before he spoke, “It better be tasty, you dick.”
Excited to receive a warm meal and sit with friends, Rhemar shouted with jubilance, “Aha! That settles it, let’s eat!”
The breakfast was everything Marcus promised. The three comrades were delightfully fed, and their spirits satisfied. Light from the rising sun bleached the grass and dirt with increasing intensity, as the noon’s temperature settled in and baked any remaining moisture into the air. Rhemar, Cato and Marcus cleaned up camp and finished packing for their continued journey.
Marcus sat his traveler’s pouch on a stone bench surrounding the extinguished camp fire and motioned Rhemar’s attention, “So then, where are you chaps heading?”
“We’re heading west to the end of Garza. There’s said to be a labyrinth there harboring a monster in need of slaying.”
“Hmm. I’ve been to the end of Garza, nothing there but sea and sand. Not a labyrinth or anything resembling such. Although, I did sense a peculiar energy coming from a valley near the coast. Thick and eerie. If I had to guess, it’s at least four days trek from here.”
Excited by the nearing of his journey’s end, Rhemar broke Marcus’ prose, “Can you show us where this valley is?”
“It’s quite the opposite direction of my endeavors. I must regretfully decline. Though you invited me to camp, which I am grateful, it is a far detour to which I cannot afford.”
Cato snickered at Marcus’ comment and spoke under his breath, “Heh, no surprise there. And after we saved you from a sexually malnourished demise, prick.”
Rhemar waved his hand at Cato to dismiss his whining, as he confronted Marcus with a suave demeanor, “Dear friend of which I feel a brother’s bond, would there be nothing to accommodate such a brazen detour? Is there no memento nor charm that will persuade a genteel of your esteem? To what end would a week’s venture with brothers of witty banter and lively company satisfy you? Surely there’s something that piques your undying interests at the world’s end, where mountain peak meets the sea’s saltine spray?”
Marcus could not resist the tantalizing gesture of Rhemar’s elegantly crafted diction. He waved his hands in defeat and agreed to guide them to the valley in question. Conditional so long as he could stop to study any foraging animal or flying beast at his leisure and that he would lodge in Rhemar’s A-frame tent while the other two huddled for warmth. Rhemar was happy to oblige and the group came to a consensus. They shook on the agreed arrangement and headed west towards the Orzcan Sea, at the end of the Garza mountains.
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The next four days were filled with arduous trekking through the steep foothills of Garza, winding and weaving along the innumerable alpine trails. The three travelers became quite tightknit during their journey, having shared meals and stories the entire way. On the final day, the group reached a broad summit of the last great mountain in the Garza range. The view was transcendental, spiritual even, in its magnificent beauty; lush fields of emerald grass blended swooping valleys into coarse auburn sand of the Orzcan coast.
From their perspective, there hunched two lowly mountain peaks situated on either side of a seemingly void valley that lead into the churning cerulean sea. On a clear day, they could see anything for a hundred miles in whichever direction. Upon his studious inspection, Rhemar failed to locate anything resembling an architectural building, let alone an ancient labyrinth. His euphoria of reaching the edge of the world was brief and gave way to crushing, suffocating doubt.
Before giving up, Rhemar turned to Marcus with diminishing determination, “So…where’s that eerie valley you spoke of?
“You’re looking at it. It’s that gradual depreciation extending from the base of those two dwarf mountains. You can’t feel the energy from up here, we have to get closer.”
Before Rhemar could reply, Cato started for a trail leading off the summit and turned to his comrades as he climbed down the mountainside, “C’mon! I want to swim in that deep blue and see if we can’t stumble into some fine fishing.”
The three travelers made their way down the last mountain on their four-day’s journey and met the silencing splendor of the dancing wildflowers littering the valley. A swaying ocean of greens, yellows, and oranges cascaded with the sweeping wind, lifting a sweet chlorophyll nectar into the air. Cato’s excitement led him hundreds of paces ahead of Rhemar and Marcus, as he sprang and bounced down the hillside. He was nearly galloping his way through the valley when he suddenly halted his parade and stood stark and still.
Rhemar noticed his friend’s uncharacteristic demeanor from afar and shouted his concerns at the shaman, “Hey, are you alright? What’s the matter, did you find something?”
Instead of answering his comrade’s call, Cato just stood there, still as a fishing crane waiting for a flounder to swim in its stalking vicinity. Before Rhemar could reach his friend, Cato collapsed into a heap on the ground. Rhemar sprung to retrieve his fallen ally. The mage lifted the shaman into his arms and pressed his hand to Cato’s forehead. It was cold to the touch.
Rhemar began shaking his freezing friend’s shoulders as he plead for his friend’s return, “Cato! CATO WAKE UP!”
He carried the senseless shaman back to Marcus, who observed the encounter from afar. With Rhemar’s majin still recovering from the battle with the tsurbaron, he was reluctant to try and mend Cato’s condition. With no other options, he bit his lip in desperation and began the mending process. Before Rhemar could push his majin into the lifeless shaman, Cato cracked open his eyes in disarray. Rhemar retracted his hand from the shaman’s forehead, as the color in Cato’s cheeks started to return and his body heat steadily rekindled.
Rhemar did not wait long for the shaman to regain his bearings before he probed Cato with numerous questions, “Are you well? What happened? Can you move? Are you hurt? Do you know who I am?”
Cato replied with a sarcastic overtone, as he shifted to stand, “A loon with an ugly cape and rubber ducks for pets. Get off it. I’m fine, alright mum? Give me a breath.”
The shaman stretched and took several deep breaths before continuing, “I’m not sure what happened. It was like a draining wall of emptiness smacked into me. Everything went silent and frigid. I couldn’t move or think, for that matter. And then I remember waking up to your sobbing qualm.”
Seemingly concerned for Cato’s well-being, Marcus steadied the shaman and spoke calmly, “What do you reckon caused it?”
The shaman shook his head as he replied, “Not sure, but I remember hearing something before everything went silent and dreary. It was a low teetering hum that sounded like a thousand flies buzzing from far away, but somehow inside my head. It grew louder and then a flash of nothing.”
With a look of sudden shock and bafflement, Marcus quickly holstered Cato’s arms, inspecting the shaman for any traces or indications to verify his assumptions, as he spoke to himself and then back at Cato, “Mark of the…it can’t be. Are you sure? Was there anything else? Did your feet feel heavy and hot? Can you remember seeing anything particular?”
Cato was suddenly more worried than he previously felt and replied with careful rejoinder, “It’s hard to say. I felt like I couldn’t move, like my feet were stuck in mud. There was that buzzing and…a flash of yellow, but that was probably the sun.”
“No, the clouds were covering the whole area when you collapsed. You did not see sunbeams my dear wind whisperer. You saw Aurumaptra, the Golden City.” Marcus shifted to Cato’s rear, unfurled the shaman’s cloak, and exposed the shaman’s shoulders before he spoke with amazed excitement, “You have the Mark of the Locust! Bythion’s beard, you have been blessed by their goddess. Ha!”
“I don’t feel blessed,” as he looked over his left shoulder, Cato saw a brand of satin aurum, like a mesh of golden-alloy velvet seamlessly stitched into his flesh, “What –? What is this?”
Cato started touching the golden locust brand with perplexed anxiety in his expression, “It feels slick and rough like beach glass. What does this thing mean?”
With calming assertion, Marcus turned the shaman to face him, “It can mean anything. Truth is, I’m not resolute on what the Mark of the Lotus signifies and the stories I’ve heard are mysterious. Some say it’s a curse-mark that transforms the branded into demons. Others say it’s a blessing from the goddess, Chrysos, marking her flock. The most interesting of all rumors say it’s a key.”
“A key to what?”
With an excited glee churning his face, Marcus grasped onto Cato’s arms, “To the Golden City! Ha, it’s tantalizing to see it in the flesh. Aurumaptra disappeared over a thousand-score years ago. There are noble’s that would bet their honor on the legitimate artifacts adorning their mantels of decadence.”
Marcus released Cato and stood with his arms stretched as though he was welcoming home long-lost information, and continued his rant, “Museums claim to have the real Jane Martin when it comes to their recent plunders of ancient lands. From this, the mainstream story depicts a city erected from hardened gold. This gilded metropolis, sanctifying skyline, or what have you, was built by the golden goddess, Chrysos, and was a sacred sanctuary for her faithful worshipers. It is said that simply gazing upon her infinite beauty would bring a warded man to his knees in piety.”
Rhemar gave a whistle and muttered perverse intentions as Marcus gave him a wink before continuing, “The city welcomed all traveling clerics, merchants, and vagabonds alike. No one had ill will or misfortune preyed upon them at this blessed of hallows. But all things must be balanced and with every sublime goodness and light, there’s voided hated consumed with darkness lurking about. One day, the approach of a foreign king, known only as the Stone Czar, and his disciplined army marked the end of the Golden City. They marched on Aurumaptra to sack the city for its treasures.”
At this point, Rhemar had gradually inched closer to Marcus, during the shapeshifter’s last segment, and was nearly an inch from his face when the mage asked what happened next. The afternoon’s waning heat brought on the sea’s cooling breeze and reminded the travelers of their exhausted and ravenous state. Before Marcus answered Rhemar’s question, the shapeshifter stood tall and stretched his back. He suggested they set up camp for the night and take back to the story after a proper supper. Cantankerously annoyed, both Rhemar and Cato pestered Marcus about the details of the partially finished story, nagging him to reveal its secretive ending. Now boiling some hand rolled dough-string and preparing a wild tomato and basil reduction. Marcus simply ignored the childish pleas for mysterious knowledge until after he ate, for a true entertainer never performed on an empty stomach.
As the evening nightfall and their delectable dinner settled in, Marcus retrieved his whittled wood pipe, sparked up a cloud of aged tobacco, and reignited his previous story, “Aurumaptra, the city of life and prosperity, of beauty and splendor. A true utopia brought to the brink of destruction by a man beguiled with greed…”
Marcus pulled another toke of his pipe, tilted his head to the rising moon, and released the peppery smoke as he continued, “They say at the last hour, when the city was in disarray and nearing destruction, Chrysos emerged from her sanctum and saw the waste laid to her city. Instead of seeking wrath and divine vengeance, she cried and fell to the earth as a lamenting woah filled the vicinity. The sight of this celestial angel weeping sent crushing sorrow through everyone except the Stone Czar. Unmoved by the scene, he ordered his generals to seize Chrysos as his prize for conquering the holy city.”
Marcus shifted his gaze around the camp as though looking to an unseen audience, before looking back at Rhemar and Cato, “But the Stone Czar hadn’t noticed the change in his men. Instead of capturing the fallen goddess, they turned on the Stone Czar, encircling him with blind frothing rage. They despised the man that made an angel weep with such devastating grief. All at once, the Stone Army beat and tore at their king, dismembering and stabbing his carcass with his own filed bones. The men became enraged with fury and in the frenzy, killed one another until not one man remained from the Stone Army.”
Marcus tapped out the ashen tobacco on the bottom of his boot, blew out the dusted remains, and repacked fresh-mashed leaf. He rekindled the surly quaff with a matchstick and a flick to prevent burning his thumb. He heaved a long sinuous stream of smoke into the rising embers of the night’s campfire. Marcus stared at the stars for several long seconds, seemingly lost in thought about the world and his place in it. Rhemar and Cato sat in hushed silence, eager to hear Marcus’ thoughts but too scared to make a peep and disrupt the performance.
Marcus shifted forward onto his seat and rested his elbows on either knee, “Just as the blood began to settle and soak into the sand, Chrysos rose from her anguished position and floated above her ruined dominion. The remaining onlookers saw her rise toward the sun and become engulfed in golden fiery light. The burning sphere exploded with a shockwave of blinding light. Once the remaining inhabitants regained their sight, there was nothing left. No goddess, no golden city, just blood and bodies littering the land with sin.”
Rhemar and Cato gave each other a shamed look before Marcus started the story’s epilogue, “Since then, only fantasied rumors of the golden city are brewed by raving heretics and lost souls looking to trade a story for a meal. No one has given undeniable proof, but there are stories of Chrysos placing tokens of passage into her divine city in the form of her worshiper’s crest, a golden locust.
Marcus knelt near Cato and looked the shaman wholeheartedly in the eyes, “There is no doubt young Windwalker, you are marked.”