There was desert and then there was darkness. There was no in-between. The sands reached abruptly to the edge of the giant wall encircling the city, cradling it in a black metal cocoon that seemed to pierce the clouds. We were up against it, watching it dissolve into the night above, more lost than we had been in the desert. The city seemed silent inside. That it was indeed a city and not an enormous obsidian conch I knew only because my captors had taken us through it before proceeding to our prison months ago. It was filthy and shifty and reeked of something adjacent to death, but there was food and water and maps on the other side of the wall, and so we had to find our way in. Five days since splitting ways with the caravan and our canteens were desiccated. So we began our slow trek around the perimeter.
After an hour of the unbroken dark, the old man muttered to himself. He had fully conquered his muteness by the time we parted ways with the caravan, though we seldom spoke, our parched throats brittle. His voice I found surprisingly airy when he forced out words, and there seemed a potential for mirth. Perhaps when he healed from whatever had nearly destroyed him. He leaned a hand against the wall as he emptied the sand from his sandals, watching it disappear into the ground. There was a tiny click. All at once he perked his head, eyes locked into focus on the infinite horizon, seeing beyond it and whispering something. He was speaking to the wall. Bargaining with it, it seemed. After a few flustered moments and a clear plea, he motioned for me to touch the wall beside him. I heard or felt nothing. But we found ourselves on the other side of the wall, inside the grimy city at last. And my companion was smiling to himself.
“I remember little of this city except that it is dangerous. Sustenance and a path, then we continue on,” I whispered. He nodded once without looking at me, studying the grey ahead. The dismal city snaked ahead of us, swapping sand for stone, perpetually in the shadow of the edifice surrounding it. We made our way out of the narrow alley we’d been deposited into only to find that all the roads were narrow, the houses and stores more like lean-tos, giving the whole place the feeling of a bazaar. There was no rhyme or reason to our path, we simply ducked down whatever street had the fewest people, looking for the right one to bother. As the night wore on our eyes kept adjusting to the gathering darkness, until we were walking in pitch, feeling around with our hands, each of us unsure where or how we’d sleep when we gave in to exhaustion.
Then the old man tripped and his splash was an exultant noise. How vast or small, clean or filthy the fountain was we could not tell, made no difference. We spent seeming eternity not just slaking our thirst but practically drowning ourselves in what felt alien after leagues of dunes. I could hear the old man laughing quietly to himself the entire time, his grin audible. After we were both hydrated and at peace we propped ourselves up against the fountain to let the world settle around us, speaking after days of silence – of the desert, our path, the caravan.
“So you are a storyteller. And yet I found you at the mouth of the great prison.”
I trailed off, but was met only with a light chuckle, head shake and silence again. I gathered myself a bit and spoke again.
“I saved you, old man, at great risk for my life and freedom. I ask only that you tell me who I rescued, so I may judge whether I made the right decision. A small price for resurrection.”
At this he became a bit more gruff. “I am no storyteller.” Tapping the book hanging vulgarly out of his pack he grumbled, “These are not stories. They are history. Biography. I have memories of each encounter. I am not weaving some fiction. The women I describe exist.”
My reaction was too baldly disparaging. “How are you to know which is an actual memory and which a memory of a dream? Especially in your state. Anything that happened before I woke you from death could as easily be a fever dream. There is no way of knowing.”
“It is one of the very few things I know for certain. It is how I spent much of my life up to this point. Finding them. Cataloguing them. To what end, I cannot remember.”
He studied me for a long time before proceeding. What dissolved his hesitation was unclear.
“A lifetime ago I met a being. She was unlike anyone on the planet. And she had a profound effect on my perspective. Since that day I have searched for others like her, documenting each. I have buried myself in books and maps, conducted interviews with men long believed dead or fictional, ventured into dangerous places and made pacts with the unholy.”
He deflated slowly without breaking eye contact.
“There is a principle. There are boundaries to this sisterhood. There is some ancient law binding their family together, or else some purpose. Even after a mere lifetime of research, I can already sense it. There is a finite number of them. Of that I am sure. A number which never changes, I suspect. A number I have tried to ascertain in places like the prison, and in places even older and deeper.”
“And this illegible tome is the fruit of your lifetime of research.”
At this he shifted his body and even in the darkness I could sense that our conversation was over. I changed the subject.
“Do you have some sense of where you’re headed? Or perhaps the better question is, do you know where I’m going and are you going to follow me the entire way?”
He looked at me a long time in silence. “You and I share the same path for now, it seems, and it is unknown to both of us. You are still blindly pushing forward, hoping simply to escape. From what, I know not. It seems I am unknowingly tracing my footsteps. How long that will be the case I am unsure, but for now the familiarity is a welcome crutch.”
“I am being pushed and you pulled, somehow in the same direction. Very well. That suits me for now.”
I waited for him to ask for my story, name, but instead he muttered half to himself, “There is something familiar about your silver hair.” He trailed off into a silence that eventually became snoring.
Sleep lasted a blink, the morning’s dimness giving definition to our surroundings. Despite the beauty of the town square with its ornate fountain and statues, my eyes became glued to a restless parchment scuttled by the breeze in front of us. Though the sketch artist clearly exaggerated his nose and narrowed his eyes to make him look more threatening, there was no doubt that this was a crude representation of my companion. There was a single word on the poster, and I didn't need to understand the language it was written in to ascertain it. I jabbed him awake and nodded towards the paper. He seemed as confused as me.
“This doesn’t spark a memory? This city? The fact that it appears you’re being hunted?” He answered as he often had over the past few days.
“I remember nothing of the recent past.”
I choked on his reply and shook my head. “Well, judging by the boundary, it appears we’re closer to the far end of the city than where we arrived. You’ll have to stand behind me, avoid eye contact, hope for the best. It seems we woke up earlier than most. Let’s find an escape before the rest of the city awakens.” Scanning the plaza I cursed. “Already someone has identified you.” A merchant setting up his shop on the far side was pointing us out to his neighbor. “Come.”
We scuttled out of the square moving as fast as we could without arousing more suspicion. I kept our path erratic, but always moving towards the far wall of the city. The streets became more populated as we moved towards the obsidian, until finally we were dodging packs of men in our measured haste. It was clear to me we were being followed still, I sensed someone’s furtive movement at the far end of my awareness – the merchant or someone he had bidden follow. Something was keeping him from bridging the gap between us and I wondered what. Three abrupt turns later he was joined by a few other figures and my question was answered. Our quiet chase was beginning to arouse the suspicion of those we passed street after street, and being that the wall seemed no closer than when we set out, my desperation for a new plan was surging.
She registered only as a shadow before she swept the two of us from the road and into a dark tent, bidding us to follow behind her. Nothing about her tripped my intuition, so given the circumstances we crawled behind her, tent to tent, dashing whenever we had to cross a road. After we were thoroughly dizzy from the flashes of light and patches of darkness, we three finally sat down at the edge of an enormous tent that seemed to function as a church, parishioners kneeling and praying to an idol I didn’t recognize. At last I was able to look at the stranger’s face. It was so dark that it almost melted into the tent’s darkness, save for her bright green eyes, a color that didn’t end at the iris but bled into her sclera.
They bored straight into my companion, a steely look that he met with confusion. I waited for her to express her apparent exasperation, and then hopefully follow that with some kind of explanation. Instead, silence. I was not patient for long. “Thank you for your help. We are lost and confused and have many questions. Why did you –” She interrupted my by opening her hollow mouth. Tongueless. I faltered, realizing somehow at that moment that everyone in the silent city was tongueless.
The old man stepped in, speaking slowly. “It is apparent you know me. And I knew you. But my memory is as empty as your mouth.” She studied him warily, lifting her hand to his chin after a few moments and cocking his head as she took him in. “We need to escape this city without being seen. Is there an exit that doesn’t spit us out onto the sand?” She nodded once. We were off again.
Countless streets later she deposited us inside the first floor of an abandoned building with wooden planks for a floor. She looked at us both again, this time with a look of concern. Taking my companion’s head in her hands, she kissed him soundly on the forehead. Then she walked to the center of the room, lifting a tattered rug from the floor and revealing darkness. Stepping closer I realized what I was looking at – a sheet of the same metal that cocooned the city. Miming the motion, she bade him place his hand on it. Again, after a click his eyes focused on eternity, he muttered a few unintelligible words, placed my hand next to his and we were on the other side of the metal.
We were still for a time, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was cold here, musty, with a rich, ancient smell that was somehow comforting. There were faint sounds in the far distance, and I imagined that if I screamed, the echo would travel for days. Already I could tell that this was man-made, not simply a network of caves. When our sight finally came, we realized we were in some vast library. There were identical wooden shelves of books as far as we could see in every direction. My companion’s eyes grew wide and he ran his hand along a shelf of books, looking at each one carefully, then taking in our surroundings more generally.
He then placed himself directly under the metal sheet, walked down a specific number of shelf rows, and then across a specific number, counting silently the whole way. I watched him tally the books on the middle shelf, hesitate a moment, and then pluck a slim red volume, looking triumphant. He exhaled, opened the book, and soured slowly as he flipped through it. The pages were empty. Either it had never been written in or somehow the writing had completely faded over time. I took it and gave it a more careful perusal as he shook his head.
“You know this place. You have been here before.”
“There are a few pages – here, here – that were torn out,” he muttered, ignoring my statement. He perked up, studied the tear carefully, running his finger across it, and started rifling through the shelves closest to the book.
Soon he was tossing books off the shelf in a mad hunt. In his haste he failed to notice a few sheets scattered atop one of the shelves, which I gathered quickly, laughing to myself as I sat against another shelf and began to read his words.
Illustration by Chris Baily