Deep Secrets: Part Nine
When Demetrius came to, he was lying on a slab of stone somewhere under the ground. He sat up and felt his head. There was no sound, except for a trickle of running water somewhere, and the faint crackle of fire, and even that echoed loudly in the high hall. He couldn’t even see the ceiling.
“You are awake.”
The Aisha looked quickly across the room, startled. He hadn’t realized there was anyone else in the room.
“Coltzan’s child.” Nuria rose from her seat. “Would you like some water?”
Demetrius nodded. His pack was lying by his feet, and he went through it to find the water he’d packed so carefully, back at the palace.
It seemed a hundred years away now.
He tipped the water down his throat: first a little at a time, and then more. It had cooled while he was unconscious, the temperature sliding down to meet that of the room.
“You are Nuria,” he said, when he could speak. “Aren’t you?”
“I am. You are the son of Coltzan. What is your name?”
“Demetrius.” He was proud that his voice did not waver. “I have come—”
The Fire Faerie smiled. “I know why you have come.” She crossed the hall to take a chair next to him. Looking around, Demetrius realized he was sitting—had been lying—on top of a long table. “And I have what you seek. But I would ask you first—why do you seek it, Demetrius?”
Why? Because it was there, the Aisha thought, and then realized that wasn’t the right answer. “I don’t know,” he said.
Nuria nodded. If she had known that already, she didn’t say it.
“I—” He paused. “At first I was curious. And then, when I thought about it, I thought maybe I could use it to punish usurpers. Like my father.”
“Does your father usurp?”
“He does. He did.” He was surprised at the vehemence in his voice. “He stole the lands from—from hundreds of kings and queens. All so he could unite the Desert.”
“Against a mighty foe.”
“But if he’d just asked people for some troops, a few soldiers—”
“Do you think they would have given them to him? Kings and queens are jealous, Demetrius, and greedy, and they care only about their own. If their land did not border the sea, they would not have sent soldiers. It would weaken them, and their neighbors would overrun them.”
Demetrius opened his mouth, and then closed it. “But it wasn’t fair,” he said. “What he did. He didn’t give them a choice.”
“And you think you are the best to give them that choice.”
“No—” Demetrius was aware of her eyes on him. Faerie eyes, with all the magic and wisdom of hundreds of years. “Yes. I suppose.”
“How will the Ring of the Deep help you?”
Coltzan had not told him what power it had. Just the power of the Ring of the Lost—again, and again.
“I don’t know,” the Aisha whispered. He was starting to wish he had never come: sitting here on Nuria’s long table, in her high hall, he felt like nothing. And she was showing him the holes in his plans, slowly, deliberately.
“What do you want to do?”
“I wish—I wish the choice were simpler. I wish the world were simpler.” Demetrius looked defiantly at her, and she looked back calmly. “There are so many palaces, and cities, and people—you have to consider everything before you do anything, and if you don’t, you make everyone angry.”
Nuria rose. “Come with me.”
Demetrius slid off the table and glanced at his pack.
She said, “You won’t need that.” She led him away from the table, away from the center of the hall, toward the walls. Demetrius wondered where they were going. He peered forward in the shadows, but some trick of the light kept him from seeing what was ahead until they got there: a tall corridor leading away from the main hall.
They started down it, and the Aisha found it was steps, shallow stone risers that were barely steps at all. After a time it began to curve gently.
They had completed, perhaps, two and a half circuits of the circle when they stepped out of the stairwell.
Demetrius was reminded of his father’s treasure vaults, but this was neater.
Nuria indicated a pedestal in the center of the room.
“The Ring of the Deep,” she said.
He stepped forward, and took it.
“What—” he started to ask, turning back to her, but by the time he had turned, he was in the desert again.
It was the depth of the night that astonished him, at first: how dark it was, and how many stars. Then it was the moonlight, and the fact that nothing but sand was visible for miles around.
Nuria rules the wild places, the uncivilized places, his father had said.
Demetrius slipped the ring onto his finger for safekeeping and set up camp a little way off from where he had appeared.
Lying on the bedroll he’d brought, he stared up at the stars.
I wish the whole desert were like this, he thought.
A moment later, he jumped up. The sand was humping up under his blanket, as if something underneath it was trying to get out. The bump stretched and moved, and then stepped neatly up onto the level.
Demetrius scrambled back, and fell hard.
It shook its wings, and little showers of sand fell off them; then it raised its head and gave a call that shook the sky. Replies came back: bugling clarion calls. The sand creature beat its wings and leapt into the sky, and was joined by others, a coterie of winged sand constructions.
For minutes they streamed past him, from the furthest reaches of the desert toward the center, where there were palaces and cities and people.
Only when he was sure they were all gone did Demetrius get up and pull his blanket out of the hole the sand creature had left. Already the sand was sloping down into it, making it part of the desert.
He packed furiously, shoving things in, and then ran after them, his shoes slipping and sliding in the sand. Up one dune and down the other side, almost tripping over his own feet, the Aisha ran.
It felt like hours: panting through the dark, avoiding the deep, shadowed holes the creatures had climbed out of, running and running. It felt like a nightmare.
But eventually Demetrius had to slow down. His side ached, his breath came shallow, and he was no closer to the sand creatures than he had been before.
He sank onto the cool sand and let his pack fall. The moonlight glinted in the heart of the Ring of the Deep, tauntingly, flauntingly. Demetrius pulled it off his hand and held it high, ready to hurl it so far into the desert no one would ever find it, but reason stayed his hand.
If it had created these—these things—couldn’t it call them back?
He pushed it on again and closed his eyes tight. I wish you would leave the Desert alone. I wish you would leave the Desert alone—go back to your holes. I wish you would turn into sand again and just stop existing.
I wish. I wish.
He wished until his eyes hurt from how tightly he’d closed them, and then he slid the ring off and waited.
After a while he got the blanket out of his pack and wrapped it around himself. He cradled the Ring of the Deep in the palm of one hand. It glowed up at him. Demetrius imagined the sand creatures flying into towns, wrecking buildings, burying everything in layers of sand.
The Aisha imagined them creeping into bedrooms, surprising inhabitants, imagined them crawling through streets or blowing streetlights out with puffs of breath more sand than air.
He imagined them silent on their wings over palaces, imagined gold leaf scoured off by rough sand paws, imagined murals and frescoes obscured.
He imagined the desert coming into the cities, and shivered.
Demetrius watched the sky for hours more, tracking the movement of the moon and stars across it, until the light of dawn began to push back the darkness,
He was never quite sure how he kept himself awake that night, keeping a vigil for the sand creatures’ return. The ring in his palm was very cold, and very heavy.
They never came, never flew back over. Demetrius sat while the light broke over him, a cresting wave of sunshine, and then got up. He put the ring in his pocket and dug into his pack for food; quite apart from the other things he’d learned from Nuria, he was determined now to not get sunstroke again.
He drank a little of his water and looked at the level of it. He would have to refill it at the first spring or town well he saw.
If it was still free and not clogged with sand, Demetrius’ mind added.
He stowed the water away again and started walking, guessing a direction to the nearest town. His feet were sore and hard to lift, and the tendons in his ankles complained with every step he took, but he was determined to keep walking until he found a city or town where he could find—
Where he could find whatever he would find.
Walking, his hands in his pockets, leaning up against the early morning wind that rose and skirled throughout the dunes, he wondered what he would find.
He wondered what he had done.
To be continued...