“I’m sure that’s just a myth.” –Famous last words
Photo credit: Tante Tati
The middle. For the beginning, start here.
“The debate over whether the Staff of Akatala was made of wood or metal may be impossible to resolve. During his rule, Ziviko defaced all known statues and murals of any prior azidaja holding the staff. The only surviving images were created long after the staff disappeared, or by foreigners in distant regions, and vary greatly in their depictions.”
– From “The Chronicles of the Majavir,” by Madhaq of Pavalbat
* * *
Belzaq took off his straw saucer-hat and ran a sleeve over his sweat-soaked hair, fanning himself with the hat before replacing it. He heaved himself up, grunting, holding a meaty hand against his back as he stood. “Come along, we’ve rested long enough. It’s time to enter the city proper.”
Jag leaned back against the chunk of stone Belzaq had been sitting on, his long legs stretched out. His own saucer-hat covered his face. A leaning shield cast shade over his bare chest. He made no response.
“I know you’re not really asleep. Get up.”
Jag’s voice filtered up through the hat. “It’s going to be dark soon. Might as well go back to that barn and come back in the full daylight.”
The scholar squinted at the sun, almost directly overhead. “It won’t even start to get dark for hours yet.” He poked the younger man with the toe of his shoe. “You can’t fool me. You’re scared to enter Galakor. It’s a poor mercenary who takes the gold and then resists the duty.”
Jag pushed his hat back with a sun-browned hand, peering sideways at Belzaq. He sat up and stood in one fluid movement of his muscular legs, and leisurely began lacing his shirt. “It’s an even poorer mercenary who takes the gold, then gets halfway here before realizing he was tricked into going to a haunted city. Can’t very well spend the gold if I die in some ancient ruin in the middle of nowhere.”
“Nowhere? In ancient Layor, this was the center of the known world.”
Belzaq’s eyes scanned the panorama before him. Squared stones jutted from the ground at odd angles, littering what was left of the gray-tiled roads. The rubble was interrupted by partial walls and roofless buildings, staring with empty eye socket windows. Tall grasses and bushes pushed up from every bare spot. The few trees that had taken root were enough to block the view of the city center. Half a league further in, the remains of the great temple of Akatala supposedly still towered high. Belzaq instinctively patted his bag, where his notes were wrapped securely in a double layer of treated leather. He’d copied them from the only known account of an exploration of this ancient city. Belzaq had the entries practically memorized by now, but he still reviewed them every night.
“The ancient Layorans can keep it.” Jag always grumbled like that. But when Belzaq picked up a pack and walked toward the city—or rather, toward the greater concentration of ruins—Jag hoisted the larger pack over his shoulder and followed without further complaint.
“Aren’t you even a little excited about searching for the fabled staff of Akatala? I would think that would appeal to your adventurous spirit.”
“Maybe my adventurous spirit has been overruled by my spirit of ‘not wanting to die like all the other people who went looking for it’.” Jag picked his way over and around the fallen stones with more grace than his charge. He quickly caught up and took the lead.
“We don’t know that all those people died. I mean, people disappear all the time.”
“And the rumors about the secret death cult living in the ruins?”
“Eh, probably started by the locals to keep treasure-hunters away. Besides, Gawal Longstrider came here to seek the staff, and he lived to write about it.” Belzaq patted his bag again, looking down at it proudly. Distracted, he stepped into a hole in the path and stumbled.
Jag harrumphed, obviously unconvinced. “Wasn’t he the only one of his team who survived? Assuming he ever really came to this illustrious city, that is.” His wide gesture encompassed an expanse of rubble. “Anyway, this staff we’re looking for, it’s been buried for, what, seven centuries? Wouldn’t it be rusted and useless by now?”
“Well, magic items don’t rust. Usually. Hopefully.” His scholarly enthusiasm bubbled up. “Or rot, as would be the case if it were wood. You see, there’s a heated debate about…”
Jag half-turned and looked over his shoulder, flashing Belzaq an expression of utter disinterest.
Belzaq had to stop to keep from running into Jag. He scanned the surroundings, acting as if pausing was his idea. “Hold up.” He sat on a low wall, took the cap off a scrollcase hung over his shoulder, and unrolled a map. He stared at it, looked up, rotated it, and stared at it some more. “This doesn’t look right.” He turned it again, glancing back and forth between the map and the ruins.
Jag set his pack down and rubbed his shoulder. “Is that the map drawn by this Gawal Longstrider expert, who claims to have been here before and survived?”
Belzaq, pretending not to hear, rotated the map back the way he’d had it before.
“And it doesn’t actually look like the actual city ruins that we are actually standing in. Oh, that’s very reassuring.”
Belzaq re-rolled the map and slid it into the case. He confidently pointed to a path off to the left, but made no move to rise. To put off getting back on his aching feet, he changed the subject. “I’m curious—what have you heard about the staff?”
“You mean the legend? Same as most folks, I guess.”
“Do you even know whose staff it was that we’re looking for?”
“Sure, it was Azidaja Velchinor, uh, Velibor of… the house of something. The ruling family of Layor. They were all supposed to be the sons of their god Acktar. That never made any sense to me, since they were also the sons of the azidajas before them. So they had two fathers? I mean, how can—“
Belzaq cleared his throat before Jag wandered off topic, again.
“Anyway, then the staff disappeared, and that was that.”
“What was what? You skipped the whole story.”
“You want me to recite the entire bards-act?” Jag sighed. “Fine. The head priest steals the magic staff and… Oh right, he hides it from Velchi— uh, from the azidaja, just before the enemy attacks the city. And the azidaja is saying, Oh no, my magic staff is gone! I am betrayed! So the bad guy leader shows up and the azidaja has a big fight with him—bam, bam, ow!—and almost defeats him. But the bad guy cheats, so he wins anyway and takes the throne.” Jag swung his arm out dramatically, lowering his voice. “And that was the last of the great azidaja line of Layor.”
Belzaq sniffed. Seventeen pages in the Chronicles of the Majavir devoted to Velibor and the staff, and his guard reduces it to a puppet show. “It’s Akatala, not Acktar. What they used to call Sambar, as I would think even you would know.”
“The politics were more complicated. The usurper Ziviko—the ‘bad guy,’ as you say—had been a captain in the azidaja’s army. The rebellion tore the city apart. After Ziviko took the throne, it got worse. He destroyed everyone and everything around him—enemies, allies, family—until nobody was left. He obsessively searched for the staff but never found it, which was probably a good thing, given how much damage he did even without it. Galakor never recovered, even after he died. It was conquered a few more times, until finally…” Belzaq’s fingers indicated the desolation before them.
Jag looked around warily, quietly drawing his sword and shifting his shield. “I feel like we’re being watched. Keep an eye out.”
Belzaq glanced around, seeing nothing. “You’re being skittish. Nobody’s here but us, and maybe some birds.” He puffed out his chest, thinking about the next part of the story. “Now, what you haven’t asked yet is why I think I can find the staff when nobody else has been able to.”
Jag nodded absently, his eyes on the treeline.
“Well, I have a secret device that will lead me right to it.” Belzaq stopped himself from patting the pouch hanging from his belt. As many weeks as he’d traveled with Jag and as many times as he’d trusted the man, Belzaq wasn’t quite ready to trust him with this. Jag might try to steal it and use it himself, after all. Or sell it. People are like that with magic devices. “It all started when I found this very old ring, that we think belonged to—“
“Shhh!” Jag crouched and raised his shield, facing the woods to the north.
As Belzaq turned to see what Jag was doing, he heard a whizzing sound and a crack. He looked down in time to see a small arrow bounce on the ground, near the base of the stone wall. He considered it curiously for a moment before understanding the danger. Then he dropped his large frame to the dirt, hiding as well as he could behind a spindly bush.
* * *
Jag crouched, shifting his shield. At least Belzaq was smart enough to duck. They might yet get out of here. He whispered, “Quick, we need more cover—get behind the wall!” A round of arrows whizzed past, one thunking into the wood of Jag’s shield. Belzaq was between Jag and his cover, but seemed to be frozen in place. Probably never been shot at before. “Move!” Jag pushed the big man forward. The scholar fell onto his side, still locked in his crouching position. His face was slack, his glassy eyes staring sightlessly at Jag’s knee.
Ah, poison. Yes, this was all very reassuring.
As the mercenary climbed over his former charge, he heard a thwap and felt a sting in his leg. He tried to calm himself. Okay, walk through it, you’ve been poisoned before. As long as you don’t get hit again. Just get behind the wall and—
next, the ending: Act III