The Lost City
Coauthored by fluttergork
My name is Carl Indura. 116 centimeters of light grey Lutari. My fur used to be red, but that was before I began as an explorer.
Being an explorer is not at all what it's cracked up to be in the old literature where the hero bravely trots into a lost civilization, finds the treasure and gets the girl. I should know; not only did I grow up reading all the old books about explorers, I even –naively- followed their footsteps. I entered the lost civilizations, found a coat of light grey fur and an annoying partner. Not at all like in the books.
My partner; Hannah Seruga, is a girl. I have to give her that much, but that's also where the similarities end. She's a short, dumb and annoying Kougra. Not even blonde; her fur was so black it was almost blue. Not at all like in the books. The only reason I keep her around is because -aside from myself- she's the only one dumb enough to explore the old civilizations.
This was the fourth time we explored the ruins. The first three times we had simply cased around the decrepit castle, moving through the wreckage of a village. The dusty ground was littered with square wooden floors which had started to decompose, or been lost to the scarce, twisted plants which spread across the fields.
These horrid gray plants, spreading through the vast field in irrational loops as the birds skirled above, fitted perfectly in with the fallen castle looming above us, barely poking through the fog.
"I don't like this," Hannah muttered to herself and I patted her back gently.
"Want to head back?" I asked, and she shook her head. Of course she didn't; she was too curious to turn back and I knew just from that brisk shake that we would head into the castle today.
We walked on, and Hannah stopped four hundred yards from the castle and kneeled to the ground.
"What's up?" I asked, and she hushed me impatiently as she pulled a knife from her belt. All of a sudden I felt as though I was the newbie explorer. Hannah cut through one of the roots, pushing it aside as it leaked black sap onto her fingers. She dug the knife into the ground and tilted it back, lifting a large square from the earth. She pulled at the square and brushed the dirt away.
"Mercantile," she said, reading the faded markings in the wooden sign.
"Mercantile," I agreed. Our voices were dull, but that was just from the fog. This was a large discovery; another piece we could use as proof. Once upon a time, the villagers in this village had spoken the same language as us.
Hannah looked up at me, her eyebrows furrowed, and asked in a worried tone "How old is this sign?"
"Dunno," I said, and felt that this wasn't exactly true. "It might be as old as the village. Nobody's stayed here since the dawn of the age. At least not long enough to start a mercantile."
"Feels weird," Hannah commented dryly. She swung her hand out to the ruins of the village, pausing briefly at one of the better kept houses; two feet of wall stood unsteadily against the wind, barely revealing the shapes of a window.
"They spoke our language."
"Or something close to it," I replied, and she nodded. She had listened to the same lectures as me. Our language had to come from somewhere; though it may have evolved over the years, it might still be very close to the original source. This place, or any like it.
"Let's move on," I said; not wanting to discuss this option.
"In a hurry, are you?" Hannah replied, her lips rising in a feeble grin. I nodded.
"The air isn't good for us. We should finish up as soon as possible; if there's anything we want to discuss, we can do it at home."
"You've never been in here before?" Hannah asked as we stopped by the drawbridge. The moat was as dry as the rest of the land, and the sickly gray roots seemed thicker at the bottom. Perhaps they had drawn down there in search of water. Perhaps they grew sideways and were naturally thick deeper in the ground.
"No; I've had enough with the village," I replied, and she nodded solemnly.
"And now we're going into the castle," she agreed.
"Scared?" I asked, and she gave a shaky laugh. "Of course not," she said, the suddenly loud words rolling over the desolate lands behind us.
"Yeah, me too."
The drawbridge had fallen; the left half had broken off and lay in the ditch below, and the right half seemed to hold on by luck and little else. Hannah set a tentative food on the bridge and then pulled it back as the wood began creaking.
"You think it'll hold?" she asked, and then added "I hope it doesn't."
"No. And why?" I asked, and she gestured up at the castle wall. The thick, gray stones had sagged inwards, but not fallen. Far up on the wall, maybe fifteen feet up, a single triangular window overlooked the ruins.
"If it breaks, nobody's tried to enter before," she suggested, and I nodded, half embarrassed I hadn't thought of it myself, and half enticed by the thought. The village had been looted of anything useful. But the castle? If nobody had been there before, we might find something useful. Maybe even some of the secret which had helped the old ones prosper.
Bringing back interesting stories was good. Of course bringing back something which would allow us to inhabit the old world would be enough to make us heroes, but between those two, sat this unthought-of possibility. Bringing back something which would help us. We would be heroes. We might even save everybody even if we couldn't move into the old world.
"Ready?" Hannah asked tauntingly, and stepped onto the drawbridge. I gasped, held my breath, and prepared to throw myself forwards to save her –such a splendid empty gesture that would be- but nothing happened. The wood creaked ominously, but never broke, and Hannah walked across without falling into the ten foot deep moat. I followed, worried I might weight as much as twenty pounds more than her, but the wood held my weight.
Just bringing back their building techniques would open up countless chances to prosper; the drawbridge had remained in this dying land since the start of age and it still held strong, while we suffered a cave-in every other week at best.
The castle corridors stood long and narrow, and our footsteps echoed flatly in front of us, coming back as distorted cracks which made the hairs of my neck stand on edge. Any one of those cracks might be the sound of somebody else. Or of the entire castle collapsing on top of us.
Hannah walked up front; she had seemed so reluctant at first, but now she flitted eagerly ahead of me, peeking into every room, each time with the same hopeful look on her face. This eager and hopeful look never died, no matter how many rooms she looked at only to find them empty or ruined.
Thirty minutes passed, moving from room to room, and by the time we actually found something, we had lost enough hope to be genuinely surprised. Hannah saw it first, and gasped. I caught up with her, hurrying slightly –as much as I could manage. And echoed her gasp as I saw what was below us. Standing on a balcony fenced in by a golden fence worn down to gray, we looked down upon a large, oval hall. A dark red carpet ran through the hall, and this discovery was breathtaking in itself; it was the first true color we had seen in these decrepit ruins. But what stood at the end of the carpet was even more splendid. A throne.
It looked like an ordinary chair made from stone, but the size removed any doubt. Once upon a time, a king had sat in this throne, towering over his subjects.
"That's amazing!" Hannah gasped, and I nodded, unable to speak. I tried, but my open mouth made no words appear. Wanting to communicate the joy I felt, I hugged her, squeezing her tightly to me. A throne! Not only a castle-like building suggesting a leader, but an actual throne!
Hannah smelled flat; a ... No other words for it; she smelled gray. I burrowed my nose into her fur, inhaling deeply, and couldn't feel the normal smell of mushrooms and sweat.
"We have to go," I told her, and she shook her head. I wanted to slap her for it; she had agreed my word was law, but I just couldn't. I knew exactly why she wanted to stay, and I couldn't disagree with her. This was a throne room. Somewhere in this room we might find big things from their civilization. Laws. Merits. A civilization.
A scream split the silence in the throne room, and Hannah squeaked in surprise and fright. I clapped my hand over her snout, and she winced.
"Mhut?" she asked through my fingers, her lips not moving, and I hushed her. I had heard the birds of this land; had even seen them up close as they squabbled over a sparse piece of food. I had heard the wind howling as it blew through the roots which came up to devour the houses. But neither of these things could produce this scream; there was only one thing which could. The same thing which had given me the start of my grey fur.
I pulled back from the railing, dragging Hannah along, and another scream sounded through the hall. It sounded wailing and hurt. Yet it also held some odd emotion. Almost sadness, almost disappointment. Almost intelligent.
The screamer had heard us. The screamer had expected to come here and find a meal.
A large, bent figure moved into the throne room, dragging its knuckles along the carpet. It was a misshapen and horrible thing, its fever-gray skin littered with tufts of blackish hair. Its face was flat and wrinkled, the eyes looking out through rolls of skin black and malevolent.
I vaguely heard Hannah gasp, but paid no mind to her. The screamer below rose up and beat his long arms into the air, bellowing at the ceiling. This was responded by several other screams, and seconds later, crashes sounded from below us as more of the horrid misshapen figures came running, beating their hands against the floor and ramming their heads into the wall. The first screamer turned around and hissed at the new arrivals, the hiss warbling up and down. I listened to the hiss, and then gasped as I recognized the sound.
"He's trying to speak!" I whispered, and Hannah nodded. Her eyes were filled with tears, and her lips were drawn down in the worst emotion I could imagine in this castle. Pity.
More screamers arrived below. One ran lumpishly forwards, its large snout scratching at the floor as its body lurched to the side on every alternate steps. It walked on all four, and one leg was shorter than the others; a misshapen protrusion of gray flesh. Another screamer followed and the four-legged screamer raised its snout into the air and gave a horrible gargling scream through hanging lips. Teeth poked through the screamer's snout at random angles, one larger than the others; so large it could have been called a tusk if it hadn't been growing up through the snout itself, bending back until it touched the sallow skin between the creature's eyes. The second screamer shambled forwards, its legs dragging along the floor, digging two wide grooves through the dust. Its body was slender, almost like the body of a faerie, but the similarities were only in size. Where the wings might be, two folds of skin and flesh hung down its back. Its head was lopsided and misshapen, the left side squished down until it was almost flat. One arm hung uselessly at its side, swinging like a pendulum. The other arm was held up, brandishing a knife at the first screamer. It held the knife the wrong way, holding the hilt out towards the room and gave it a strange look as though it had expected the knife to work. She fumbled it around twice and then gripped down on the dull blade again. She looked at the knife, seeming to study it for a long time, and then dropped it with a disappointed sigh. She leapt into the air and the two lumps of flesh on her back flapped uselessly back and forth until she landed on the floor. Her legs buckled and she fell. The second screamer moved towards her and she shied away with a caw of warning. She pushed herself into the air with her arms, the lumps of flesh on her back once again flapping uselessly about. She landed on the floor with a brief look of confused disappointment and then turned to the other screamer and shouted a string of garbled nonsense at the others.
Hannah began sobbing, muffling the sound as best she could, and I looked over at her.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's just so sad."
"Sad?" I whispered back, half my concentration fixed on my voice, the other half fixed on the screamers below. They were fighting now; wrestling each other.
"You don't see it, do you?" Hannah asked, almost angry, and when I shook my head, she mimicked the gesture.
"They're us," she said flatly, not lowering her voice. "Look at them." She pointed to the four-legged screamer, and said, "Moehog."
That was all she had to say. As though her words were extra eyes, I now saw the disfigured creatures for what they were. Moehog. Bent, broken and twisted, but the snout was unmistakable. Same with the faerie. The lumps on her back; clearly wings,. And the last screamer? The first we had seen?
"It's you, isn't it?" Hannah asked. "It's a Lutari."
The screamer was stretched in height and width, but the shape was there. It was a Lutari. Had been one ages ago. Even the graying skin was similar to my own skin after my fur had lost its color.
This comparison brought another thought; another revelation. They weren't just us; misshapen by whatever had happened. We were becoming them. My own skin and fur was only the first stage of the transformation.
"It's so sad," Hannah repeated in a weak voice. She was crying.
"Let's go," I replied and turned to the screamers, wondering if they had said the words. I didn't recognize the voice any more. Croaky and dry. But it was my voice. It had spoken my words.
The screamers below had ended their fight, and the faerie had climbed onto the throne, shouting "okwin!" repeatedly. The words rang through the throne room, eerily like real speech, yet at the same time completely different. Okwin. It might actually mean something.
"Let's go," I repeated, and this time Hannah agreed at once. She was looking pale and ill. As though she had reached the same conclusions I had. Or maybe it was the air.
We walked quickly away from the castle. The screams of the abominations followed us for a long time, but as we crossed the drawbridge, the sounds faded away to nothingness, and once again, the only thing we heard were the shrill noises from the disfigured birds above.
"You're not going out here again," I said, and Hannah objected at once. I let her object for ten seconds, and then told her to shut up. She did, and I patted the top of her head.
"It's graying already," I said, and she looked quickly up, attempting to see the top of her head. I pulled out a hair, and held it out to her as she swore from the pain. She stopped mid-swear, and took the hair, staring wide-eyed at it. It was grey. It hadn't been at the start of the day.
"I still want to go out here," she said after ten minutes of silent walking. She had turned the hair over and over in her hands, contemplating this decision.
"No," I replied.
"But I want to know..."
She stopped talking. I tried putting my arm around her, and she shied away. A small price to pay if she didn't go out here again.
"You're graying. Before long, your skin will start turning grey. After that..." I gestured up at the castle, and she nodded. I put my hand around her, giving her a brief hug, glad she wouldn't go out again. We walked the rest of the way back to the cave in silence, and I continued contemplating the things I had seen today. The screamers. The castle. The throne.
Most of all, I contemplated what had happened to make things the way they were. Our history went back four hundred years, but spoke nothing of what had happened. It said nothing of the screamers, it did not even mention how we had been forced into the caves, and it said nothing of how the world had been before.
It was all up to explorers like me to fill in the many holes in our history. And the plaque above the throne had helped. It might not be a way to survive the fogs above the ground, or a clue as to what turned once normal neopets into these horrible monsters, but at least it told me where I was. Hannah might be saved; her fur might not regain its color, but at least she won't get worse. Me? I'm already lost. All I can do is to explore this new mystery. It might not be an answer to how we could return to the surface, but the plaque hanging above the throne was a clue. I hadn't seen it close, but I felt that it held a clue to everything. Once Hannah was back to safety, I could return to the castle and study the mystical text imprinted on the plaque.
Here sits King Skarl. The ruler of Meridell.