The sun shines glassily over the road winding through the middle of nowhere. To be precise, the middle of the Lost Desert; but there is not too much difference between the two. On one side of the road, a group of Neopians is digging in a space gridded out into squares.
There is no landmark to indicate the spot. It seems randomly chosen, important only for its proximity to the road. The sand dunes continue uninhibited on their march to the horizon on all sides.
The land lies still, quiescent beneath the diggers' feet.
The heat slows the Neopians, too: only the fluttering ribbons attached to the stakes marking out the area move quickly, and that depends on the wind.
Which there is not much of right now. One of the diggers, a yellow Chia, pauses to wipe at his forehead and glance at the sky.
The green Techo working the next square over shrugs. "It's been worse."
"You live here?"
"No." The Techo shakes his head. "I've been working as a grunt in these digs for years, though. Mystery Island in year five--there's a warm one for you."
"Ah." The Chia, whose name is Timothy, turns back to his work. "Ever find anything good?"
"Good? There is no good in archaeology. There is no bad. There are just artifacts."
Timothy tips his hat back with one paw. "Right. Did you ever find anything exciting, then?"
The Techo shrugs. "Once," he says, vaguely.
"What was it? Not just a shard of a pot, I bet." The Chia grins, propping himself up with his shovel.
"Shouldn't tell you," the Techo says.
"Oh, come on. This is my first dig, you can't let me perish of boredom yet."
The Techo conceals a smile. "Well," he says. "I sup-pose..."
Timothy's grin widens, and he waits for the Techo to tell him the story.
* * *
I was on my first dig (the Techo begins) which was quite a few years ago, as you could well imagine. We were in the Lost Desert, in fact, though quite a few miles from here. Digging for a lost settlement no one else knew was here.
We had pretended to the hotel owners and the tourist guides that we were just sightseeing and wanted a few nights out on the open desert. As soon as we were out of sight, though, we cut across the dunes to find the buried city.
It was secret, so we assumed it was important. A lot of the diggers were like you probably are--recent grads, snapped up by some researchers and professors with a vested interest in it. Turned out it was important, but that wasn't why it was secret.
Anyway, so we trekked out there, about twenty of us, all fresh from Neopia City, except for a couple of researchers who'd been around the world a few times already. The professors were the worst at climbing the dunes, and they kept lagging behind, but they had the maps, so we couldn't leave them. There was an exception, though, Professor Bryant.
Bryant was a white Kougra and kept his footing as even we students couldn't. He was up ahead, consulting his maps, checking his numbers.
"I think it's just up here," he said at one point, and we all hurried forward to peer over his shoulders at the map and then look around for landmarks.
There weren't any, but we had learned by then that that didn't really mean anything. Buried can be buried, after all. And he had found the correct place.
We set up camp and started digging right away. Bryant was really keen on the expedition, and he'd brought these new lamps that he set out all around. They were bright as Fyora's wings, and twice as stunning after the nighttime hike through the dunes, but we knew we didn't have many days to dig, so as soon as our eyes had adjusted, we got started.
The Lost Desert's inhabitants that we had interacted with would soon forget about us, Bryant assured us, and would probably assume we'd wandered away from the path and were lost somewhere. It happened to tourists all the time.
We didn't have enough time to think about that, or we might've noticed something fishy about that--wouldn't it be in the news more?--but we didn't. So much for the attentiveness of archaeology students. We just dug.
After two steady days and nights of digging in shifts, and doing upkeep for the camp in our off time, we started to find things. Shards of pots. A bead. At first, we all exclaimed over the finds, and we clustered around to see, but then everyone had something that they had dug out and brushed out, and Bryant was pushing us harder. Bryant himself sat in his tent at all hours of the day and night after that, inspecting what we'd found and cataloguing it, and maybe doing other things to it too.
Anyway, it was five days until I found what you'd call something exciting. So we'd been digging for a week, and in the usual way we'd have started complaining a long time ago, but there was so much to be found and it was all so amazing that none of us did. There were panels that had been painted on. There were wooden spires of buildings, perfectly preserved. There were golden coins with Blumaroos' and Acaras' and Kougras' heads on them.
It was a magnificent dig, but we didn't know that. We thought this must happen every day, or nearly ever day, in the archaeology business. It took most of us a long time to realize that hardly any digs were like that. They were a rarity.
As I was saying, on the fifth day, I found something. I was digging, but I was slowing down a little now, because I hadn't found anything in my square for a while now. Digging is hard work. You know that. It was in the night, and as cold as it is warm now. I had my winter coat on, buttoned up, and I was holding my trowel with gloved paws.
And there was suddenly... something... in the soil. Something humped up out of the sand--still covered in it, oh, yes, but obviously it was something. I dropped my trowel and picked up my brush instead. By now we weren't being too careful. There was so much stuff there that if we dropped one clay jug, we could dig a few more inches to the left and find another one. I swiped off the sand, one, two, three.
It lay there, under the artificial lights Bryant had found, and it gleamed. There's no better word for it. It was made of glass, perfectly normal glass, and resembled a cup, or a chalice. On one side they had painted an emblem: a golden background, two serpents, a tree. We had found other things with signs like these. There was a red lion on a white background painted on the bottom of each jug we'd found. A maker's mark, we'd assumed.
I worked out of the soil, being careful now, and popped it out of there. It lay in my paws and even through the gloves I could feel something wrong about it. But it sat there docilely enough, and Bryant had said to still bring our finds to him: bring them, bring them!
So I went over to his tent, still carrying this thing, still wincing from the wrongness that came out of it. I pushed back the flaps and carried it in. The tent was lit, too, and the wrongness stayed.
I was not used to stuttering.
"Yes, my lad." He wore pince-nez, those little glasses, and he adjusted them as he turned to face me. "Did you--" He stopped, then, and stared at what I held. "Oh, Fyora," he murmured, his eyes going wide and vacant. Next moment he shook his head and looked back at me, his old self. "Put that down," he snapped. "Now."
Next to me was a table with a pile of papers stacked onto it. I put it there, stepped back. I brushed my hands off through the gloves, hoping he wouldn't notice my odd behavior.
I needn't have worried, though. Bryant had eyes only for the glass goblet that I had found. He prowled around the table, inspecting it, holding his paws just a fraction of an inch from the sides.
"Leave. You can go to bed now. Take the rest of your shift off."
I started, and then nodded. "Yes, sir."
And I was glad enough to leave. Even without touching it, the goblet had given me a funny feeling standing that close to it. I moved away quickly. If I had stayed, I might have been able to overhear Bryant speaking to himself, and found out more earlier, but I did not. Disconcerted by the experience, I went swiftly back to my own tent and climbed into bed. It took me longer than usual to get to sleep. My palms kept sweating whenever I thought about the goblet--in terror, in joy, in whatever.
But I did sleep. It was at too much of a premium in the dig camp for me to deny the opportunity.
I woke at daybreak.
Before daybreak, actually: the sky was just beginning to lighten as I stepped out of the tent. As I was leaving, I noticed that all of the others I shared my tent with were there, sleeping. Had Bryant let everyone off for the night, then?
I came out into the morning air--still cool from night, beginning to warm up to the scorching heat of the day--and stretched. I was unused to hearing the camp this silent, and I tried to make as little noise as I could as I went across the sand toward the cooks' tent.
But the kitchen was silent, too. Maybe I wasn't that hungry, then. I turned around and started instead toward the digging grounds.
At first I thought that they were empty as well. A flash of movement caught my eye, though. Bryant was in the center of the dig, marking something off. He was moving the ribboned stakes to indicate a circle. When that was done, he drew a few marks on the sand, and then stood up.
As he stood, he raised what he was holding.
I didn't recognize it at first. He had filled it with the mulled fruit juice that we had been saving--on his command, I realized now--and it shone dully dark red in the murky light of pre-dawn.
As I saw what it was, the sun rose above the dunes and light fell onto the camp. The night's chill dissipated almost instantly, but it still lingered in my bones as I watched Bryant.
Of all the brilliant colors revealed by the sun's light, the goblet's was the brightest. It drank in the sunlight greedily, soaking up its power. An uncomfortable note resonated in my head, and if I had had any space left for thought or movement, I would have clapped my paws onto both ears.
As it was, the note eliminated all thought. It was. I was. And that was all.
I still watched Bryant. He raised the glass higher. It took all of his strength to do that, to feed even more sunshine into the goblet. Sweat trickled down his face, and the muscles of his arm tensed and trembled.
All in a rush, then, he brought it down and drank deep, throwing the contents of the goblet down his throat. Even from this distance I could see him swallow hard.
One breath, two, and the note still hung impossibly in my head. Bryant took a deep breath, chest heaving, and let it out.
He was not noticeably different. Not really. He did not shine with light. But he had changed. His bearing was prouder, his back straighter. He lifted the goblet and drank the remainder, dropped it, sighed.
But the note in my head kept on. Instead of irritation now, there was something cleaner, something purer. Bryant's behavior had produced another note, I realized suddenly, a disharmony with this one. With my note.
Now I just had one note, a clean one. Just one.
Filled with the note, I rose, stepped forward. Bryant didn't see me at first, but then his eyes fell on me, and he glared as I strode toward him.
"I should have known."
It wasn't really me that spoke the words. It was the note, carried by me.
"Known you would try to interfere. Meddling trickster. --anyway, it doesn't matter now. I have this... this Kougra."
Even though it was the note that spoke through me, it was a surprise to realize that another music spoke through Bryant, too.
"He is suited well to me," the music in Bryant said. "Selfish. Powerful. Tricky."
"Tricky? Notice to whom you are speaking." The note was not irritated, just amused.
"Even I can be tricky at times, dear brother." The Kougra spat the last two words, and flung with them a bolt of sunlight. I didn't even had time to be scared before the note hanging in my head had moved me out of the way.
"Really. I have never known you to be." One step, two. The Kougra turned to face us. "I have been watching this camp." Another step. Circling each other. "Have you? Or did you just tell the Kougra to come here and dig, and spy no more."
"Unlike you, I see no value in watching mortals!" A charge towards us. The note caught me out of the way.
"Ah. Perhaps that, then, is your failing point. Bryant!"
The Kougra's head snapped toward us, and for a moment Bryant flickered in his eyes. Then he was gone, and it was the--whatever it was--that inhabited his body instead.
The note smiled through me. "Aha..."
The Kougra snarled. "Too many years! Too many years of waiting!" He coiled, prepared to spring on us.
"And many more, I am afraid," the note said with my lips. The glass lay on the sand not far away. We were there in a step, two steps. Lifting it from the ground, letting the sand slide off of it, it felt oddly right to hold it. The note inside of me made it easier to hold, I think.
As the Kougra sprang, the note spit into the glass and flung it down. It landed on a slab of stone that one of my fellows had been in the middle of revealing, and split cleanly in half.
The Kougra's pounce never came. We turned together to see, to make sure. Half into his spring, he had turned into a statue. I half expected it to breathe, it was so lifelike--and, of course, it was life. Life half a step removed.
"A pity," the note said through me. "Now: mortal. Will you take the halves of the goblet for me?"
I tried to reply, but my mouth was not my own and the note laughed silently, in my head.
I apologize, it said into my mind. You have your mouth back.
"I will, if I have a place to put it."
Take it with you. Go anywhere you wish to. I will make it easier to hold, but you might still wish to wrap it in a cloth. In--let us say five years--I will come back.
"Where will you be in the time between?"
I will be taking a nap.
The note seemed to be fading from my head.
"Where should I be in five years? And how will you take a nap that long?" I said quickly, to keep it there.
Immortals' time runs different from yours, mortal. Come back here, to my home. To the Lost Desert.
"Five years, then. It is agreed."
It is agreed, fading out, and I was left alone in the morning light with a statue of a professor and the two halves of a goblet.
* * *
"Sure is. The rest of my career's been calmer than that, for the most part."
Timothy nods, still skeptical. "So what was the most interesting thing you really found?"
The Techo cracks a grin. "You don't believe me? I'll show it to you."
"No, no. You don't have to do that. I believe you," Timothy says hastily. And he does, to a point: he is sure that the Techo had a broken goblet in his luggage to back up his story.
A shrug from the Techo. "Well, if you don't, you'll see come sundown."
He turns back to digging, oblivious of Timothy. The Chia rolls his eyes, sighing. He took a mythology course in college, like all the other archaeology graduates. There's a name for this sort of ending, if he could just remember it.
But as the afternoon wears on and the sun sinks lower in the sky, Timothy glances at its position more and more frequently.
"Sundown, you say?" he asks of the Techo as dinnertime arrives and they tidy up their squares for overnight.
"Sundown." The Techo finishes up and nods to him. "And a good evening to you." He starts out of the grid of squares being dug.
Timothy sits with his friends at dinner, which is all the way across the dining hall from the table the Techo sits at. He has to sit straight up and crane his neck to see past the other archaeology graduates to that corner, but he thinks he sees the light gleaming off of glass, and feels a low note reverberate uncomfortably through his bones.
The red Elephante next to him elbows him in the side. "You okay, Tim?"
"Hmm? Oh." Sneaking a last glance at the Techo, the Chia nods. "I'm fine."