It had never occurred to Haradeth that something as beautiful as the dome city of the Sylvani could have a seedy underbelly. Yet as they wound down through the passages and left the light behind, the corridors gradually grew more and more decayed. The gleaming green metal that composed most of the hallways was showing signs of tarnish, scraps of trash were laying on the floors, and the air gained a faintly unwholesome smell that Haradeth associated with undisturbed caves and tombs, as if the air itself had gone stale. In various places there was graffiti on the walls, a mishmash of the Sylvani’s curved script, the angular lines of the Cardomethi alphabet, and series of dots, circles, and lines that Haradeth vaguely recalled as belonging to the Ancient Alohym.
The modern Alohym script, with its spirals and harsh gashes, was nowhere to be seen.
I suppose that’s a good sign, Haradeth thought, although there’s little else comforting about this. Haradeth’s knowledge of the Sylvani script only barely exceeded his absolute ignorance of Ancient Alohym, but the phrases he could see in Cardomethi were disturbing in their vague implications. “He Comes with Dusk.” “The Veiled Moon Watches All.” “Alert! Alert! Beseech Her Not!”
“Where are we going?” Haradeth asked Lorathor, his voice a low whisper.
“The Tombs of the Lost,” Lorathor said, his face grim. “Sylvani don’t age the same way as humans. In our final hours, we undergo a process not unlike a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Only instead of a beautiful creature fluttering about, an ageless and mad creature climbs out. The Lost. They migrate to the Tombs, where they can rant at each other until disease eventually claims them.”
“That’s horrible!” Haradeth exclaimed, forgetting his hushed reverence of earlier. “Elders should be respected, their opinions cherished for their wisdom.”
Lorathor chuckled darkly. “Maybe among humans, although most of the ‘wisdom’ I’ve observed from the elders of that species boils down to attitudes held over from a bygone era mixed with cute sayings and folklore.” Before Haradeth could object to Lorathor’s characterization, the Sylvani was pushing the conversation ahead. “We do not force them to go wait in the Tombs, my friend. They climb down here of their own volition, and they wallow in their madness.” Lorathor shook his head. “It’s the fate that awaits all of our species.”
Haradeth shuddered at the thought. Knowing that at the end of your life, you didn’t have a gradual decline into the grave, but would one day pupate into something that would crawl away…”I’m sorry,” Haradeth said.
“It is as it is,” Lorathor said with the smallest of shrugs. “I do not waste time dreading it. All beings come to an end. Ours is just stranger than most.”
Haradeth found he had no answer to that. It was for the best, because at that moment, they rounded a bend in the path and encountered their first of the Lost.
It was a pitiful thing, every line of its body showing signs of age and a weariness that made Haradeth ache just to look at it. A single large eye was all that belied it’s Sylvani ancestry, the distinctive w-shaped pupil something that Haradeth had never seen on any other creature. Our first sign they were not of this world, he thought. The rest of the creature slithered about on a single, massive tentacle that gave it the appearance of a slug, and from its back arose a series of spindly arms it used to drag itself along the ground on three pronged hands. In the front of its mass, just under the eye, was a hooked beak. “I see you,” it said in a high, fluting voice that echoed in the narrow hallways. “But do you see me?”
“Uh…yes?” Haradeth half said, half asked.
The creature clicked its beak together a few times, a sound that Haradeth took for amusement, then its form began to run like hot wax. It was somewhat like watching a Sylvani turn from a human form to their native form, but in many ways more disturbing. Haradeth looked away, unable to stomach the sight of the transformation.
When the disturbingly wet sucking sound of the Lost transforming completed, it was standing on three of its arms like a tripod, and had four more of the arms arranged haphazardly around its torso. The eye had split into four smaller eyes, each on the end of tendrils that looked in all direction. The beak was now located in the center of the tendril eyes “But do you really?” it whispered.
Before Haradeth could even attempt to answer, it began to scurry up the wall, clicking its beak in that odd parody of laughter the entire time. “Light and Shadow and all the Little Gods,” Haradeth whispered. “Are they all like that?” As if to punctuate the question, that sound started again from where the wall met ceiling and the Lost had come to rest. Haradeth didn’t look to see what amalgamation of flesh and limbs it would become this time.
Lorathor shook his head. “Some are more stable than others. Both physically and mentally.”
“And this…the Tarnished One? She’s more stable?”
“Oh, no,” Lorathor said with a grim laugh. “She’s not one of the Lost. Can you imagine trying to get aid from one of them?”
From the corner of the room, Haradeth heard rapid fire clicks. Lorathor’s smile grew thinner as the Lost laughed at their discomfort.
“I…no, I cannot.”
“Beware! Beware! The Third Moon Wanes in the Silver Coal,” the lost chanted from its hiding spot. Lorathor motioned for Haradeth to follow him.
Haradeth did his best to ignore that voice, instead focusing on Lorathor. “Then what is the Tarnished One?”
“The last of our gods,” Lorathor said, his voice grim now. “Though now I wonder what she truly is, in light of Anoritia’s revelation. “I do know she’s ancient. She’s claimed to be as old as Anoritia, and since no one has ever contradicted her on it…” Lorathor gave another one of those small shrugs.
He’d been doing a lot of those lately, and Haradeth just now thought to really worry about what the revelations of the past few days were doing to his friend. The Sylvani had been bitter since the revelation that his goddess was a lattice-mind that had brought his people here from another world, which Haradeth could understand. Underlying that bitterness, however, was an apathy that Hardeth found truly troubling. “I hope she has some answers for us,” Haradeth said, trying to be as reassuring as possible.
“She probably won’t,” Lorathor said. “But you wanted to waste our time, Haradeth. The sooner you realize that, the sooner we can be on our way.”
Haradeth again found himself at a loss for words. Silence settled between them as the sound of clicking laughter followed them down the hallway.