Curiosity Killed the Cat
A free fantasy serial
by KD Sarge
Part 1: Through a Hidden Door
A child’s city, Srivasi thought when the horses crested a small rise and below them the forest held back from the edges of oddly short buildings of white stone with golden streaks. Graceful arcs that should have soared, domes that should have stood tall—
“His scarf!” Gerda shouted, making Srivasi’s head ring. She wriggled, twisting and shoving and nearly knocking him out of the saddle before she slid off the back of his horse to land on her feet. “I see his scarf!” At the sound of her voice, goats came running to cavort about her. “My darlings, here you are!” She ran to meet them. “But where is Dasid?” she asked the goats.
“Small ruins,” Jhi Bo growled in Fwenye as she swung down from her horse. “They are still ruins. Why is it always ruins?” The black warhorse shook his head as if to echo her disgust, bridle-bells jingling. “I warned you,” Jhi Bo muttered as Srivasi scrambled down. “Did I not? Just because a woman weeps…”
“She’s a child,” Srivasi argued despite his still-ringing ears and the fact that Gerda was a solidly-built girl not two fingers shorter than he was, who wrestled farm animals and younger siblings every day of her life. “An orphan child, looking for her little brother. How can we not help?”
“Easily,” Jhi Bo grumbled, but she dropped one rein to the ground in signal for the warhorse to stay where she left him, and stalked forward into the ruins. Srivasi tied his horse to the warhorse’s saddle because his horse did not have half the intelligence hers did. He grabbed his book bag and his wand for the same reason.
“Dasid!” Gerda bellowed. “Where are you?”
“Wait, girl!” Jhi Bo called in Fwenye, which wasn’t going to get her anywhere. She shifted into a trot, following Gerda into the ruins. Srivasi ran after them both.
In her scarlet and gold armor, Jhi Bo was easy to find. Gerda, farther ahead and less flamboyantly dressed, was harder to spot, but she was still shouting, calling her brother and mustering the goats to stay with her.
“She will wake whatever is entombed here,” Jhi Bo predicted when Srivasi caught up.
“If it’s entombed, it’s dead,” he said. “Gerda knew of no stories except the one child, lost here years ago—he probably fell in the river.”
“Children,” Jhi Bo muttered.
“We should split up to cover more ground. If Dasid can’t hear Gerda calling, he may be badly hurt.”
“If Dasid can’t hear that bellowing, he must have lost his ears with his scarf,” Jhi Bo answered, but she waved Srivasi off to the right as she moved left. “Do not get lost!” she ordered. “And leash your impertinent ways! Remember how you grew those whiskers?”
Lost. As if he couldn’t see the river from anywhere in the ruins, and follow it downstream until he could see the horses. And she had no need to remind him—
“DASID!” Gerda called. “DaaAAA-SiiiiiIIIId!”
Or he could just follow Gerda’s shouts.
If the ruins had been a city, it was a small one geographically as well as architecturally. Srivasi thought he could walk from one end to the other before an hour burned. And it was curiously short. The stone was white with sparkling veins running through it—marble. He’d read of it making great cities, but this—arches barely topping a man’s head, buildings he had to duck to get into, with fallen roofs letting the sun in. Above each door was what might have been writing, but it was so worn Srivasi could not make it out. He wandered deeper into the city, vaguely following the lay of the land, peering through empty doorways looking for the living, wondering about the dead. What people had lived here? Why had they built it so? And was there a library?
From a distance, Gerda called, “Come, Buttercup! Here, Daisy! Come to me, Butt-insky!”
The river, he saw as he walked, had shifted over the years. White stone blocks and tops of domes stood in its course, barely rising above the surface where white water swirled around them. He imagined it was a nightmare for any traders that brought wares down from the mountains headed to Synto.
All the city’s roads led to a plaza on the riverbank, paved with crumbling brick. In the middle of that was a circle of black rock, and centered in that a circle of standing spires, one pair capped with a mighty stone, and inside that circle stood a dome-shaped building of white rock and glittering crystal.
The capstone of the spire-circle, he saw as he approached, had writing on it. It was Kurulan, or something that maybe had been an ancestor of the Kurulan script. Many of the words were eroded past comprehension, but one Srivasi would know anywhere. History. Despite himself, his whiskers twitched.
Jhi Bo would find the child. She probably already had, since Gerda had stopped shouting. So she’d reunited the family, and then in a moment she would come looking for Srivasi and drag him away if there were books, talking about danger—
He stepped forward, through the opening of the spires with the capstone, then ducking low through the short doorway of the dome.
The floor, oddly, was dirt. It hadn’t been odd that the other rooms had dirt floors, but this one… Above the floor, all was elegance and grace. White stone alternated with glass to rise up together into the dome that soared to perhaps twice Srivasi’s height, no more. The glass was twisted or cut, somehow altered so that it broke the light falling through it and the room was full of rainbows. In the center of the dome a curling cylinder of the white rock rose nearly to the ceiling, and the writing on it was clear as the day it was carved. Srivasi put his wand away and stepped to read—silently.
“In this city by the river Erdwun on this fiftieth day of the 200th year since our founding, this stone is set so that all may read and wonder.”
The writing circled up the column, but sometimes it ducked through other lines of incised characters, as if the sculptor had been incompetent or drunk or both, though the characters themselves were clear. Srivasi put his hand to the column to follow the line.
“In the year of the great flood, the serpents came. Upon this soil did Cledwyn Clubfooted make her stand”—mid-sentence the language changed to Ikontra, odd— “and with her stood a hundred heroes who rallied to her call. With the setting of the moon came the monsters, thousands strong” —now the script changed to Aduli, though the language was…was an older form of Syntari and that combination was downright weird— “but the heroes held torches and the strength of Cledwyn’s heart to keep them firm. Thus did—”
Under Srivasi’s feet, the ground turned to liquid. He shouted surprise and heard Jhi Bo answer from far off but then his ears were full and all he heard was rushing. The sunlight vanished as he slipped into darkness.
Srivasi kicked his feet to swim, but his legs swung free and then he fell into clear air and then a pile of softness as above him the dirt ceiling far above rippled and settled like a rock-disturbed pond. Light came from all around, gold and red flames caught in crystal spheres set on granite pillars lighting marble walls and hundreds of—it felt like feather-filled pillows. The room—it was as if the dome continued below, the walls arcing up, soaring toward what should be a graceful dome but ended in dirt. And no light came through the glass sections.
“This is grand,” said a voice. “Just what I needed, a friend.” A boy sat in a corner, his bottom on bare stone and his arms on his knees. “At least you’re not Gerda. Though I bet she’ll be along.”
“You must be Dasid!”
“I don’t know you—cat-person?” Now the boy stood, putting his back to the wall. “What is this place? Is this your trap?”
“Trappers don’t trip their own traps,” Srivasi said, pushing to his feet where he staggered. It was hard to stand on pillows, and hard to find the floor around them. “I’m Srivasi, and I’m human. The whiskers are temporary. Have you tried to get out?”
“No, I kind of like the idea of dying here,” the boy shot back. “Of course I’ve tried! But there are no doors.” He pointed a scraped hand at a wall. “I panicked and tried to make one,” he said, explaining the bloody marks in the indicated spot. “All I did was break my knife.”
“There’s a crack…” Srivasi said, wading to the spot.
“There are four cracks,” Dasid said. “They meet. Like a door! Though a big bloody door. Each wall has just the same, and more writing above each, just to be sure to mark the spot. But tracing the writing doesn’t open the door like above. It’s a cruel jest.”
“I’m sure no one went to all this trouble just to trap us forever,” Srivasi said, moving to inspect the shallow inscription on the closest possible door.
“Of a certainty, because they let him out before he died,” Dasid said, waving to what had seemed like a pile of rags in a far corner. Now Srivasi saw the dried, shrunken arm that stuck out from the cloth. The rest of the body was, thankfully, not visible.
“How does it not stink?” he wondered. “Wouldn’t you think that even after decades in a closed space—”
“Decades? Try centuries. Magic everywhere—this place is from before the Cataclysm.”
“But the feathers! Pillows could not last so long, don’t you think?”
“I’d think a solid floor would stay solid, so my thinking counts for nothing,” Dasid growled. “I told you I tried tracing the words.”
“But I am trying to read them, if you will allow me to concentrate.”
“Can you read the inscription, friend Whiskers? Perhaps it directs you to ‘knock twice, spin around while tapping your nose with your left knuckles’ to win our freedom?”
“It’s a wonder Gerda is so desperate to find you,” Srivasi muttered under his breath. “Of course I can read it,” he said louder. “It says—wait.”
“Can’t read it after all?”
“The last time I read a strange inscription out loud, I grew whiskers.” And a tail. Thankfully the tail had only lasted a few days.
Dasid burst out laughing. Srivasi scrubbed at the inscription with a pillow then scowled at it.
“Achoo to you too.”
Truly leaving Dasid lost might have been a favor to Gerda. And had Srivasi not stopped to talk to her, by now he and Jhi Bo would have made camp on a hillside, the birds serenading the sunset as she cooked something spicy and delicious— “Aresthanet,” Srivasi said, “was a scholar and an author who traveled all the world. This quote is from Histouri tel Marucos, his best-known work.”
“Wonderful. Does it tell us how to get me back to my goats? Gerda is going to kill me. If this place doesn’t first.”
“No, the quote is about the demon-plague of Kisadar, when the—”
The cracks in the wall deepened. Dasid shouted and jumped to his feet. The huge door slab pulled back, slid sideways and vanished. Light from the spheres fell into a dark hallway. Then light bloomed on a pillar far down the corridor.
“Whiskers!” Dasid thumped Srivasi’s shoulder. “You did it!”
“But…what did I do?” Srivasi asked.
Dasid thumped him again then scrambled over pillows to the doorway. “You answered the magic riddle! Riches await!”
“I don’t…” On the one hand, Srivasi knew better than to believe in riches for the taking—any more than he believed in the pure motives of beautiful women who led passing strangers into dark forests. On the other hand, he had no wish to sit in a pillowed prison for the rest of his probably-brief life. Especially when he only had seventy-two books, all of which he’d read before.
The sphere-lights went out in the room, plunging him into darkness broken only by the light in the corridor.
“Fine,” Srivasi muttered. “I will play along.” He waded through the pillows to follow Dasid.