Layla learns that taking care of her family can come at a price… YET ANOTHER Empires and Puzzles fanfiction story from that annoying woman.
Under the hot sun, the archaeologist pushed his hat back on his head and wiped his brow. A glance up confirmed that the sun wouldn’t set for another four hours. Good, because after dark was when the creatures returned. Bad, because he still had four hours of grueling heat. Jorma Darinatt blinked the sweat out of his eyes and returned his attention to the trench. He and his team had spent four weeks excavating the ruins at Foxcombe, and were still no closer to conclusive evidence of pre-Corellian necromancy. His money was running out, his marriage was eroding, and his daughter - why did Sheron convince him to bring that girl?! - was always underfoot.
Jorma’s trowel returned to scraping chunks of limestone and flaked granite from layers of excavation in the pit. He’d dug a five foot trench, sixteen feet long, across what was supposed to be the entrance to a burial chamber. Four weeks at Foxcombe and not a thing to show for it. That fool Quintus could keep his money and his promises of great reward - Jorma was nobody’s fool.
“Lay off for the rest of the day, Jorma,” another archaeologist said, “you’ve been staring at that one spot for ten minutes, you haven’t even moved. It’s the heat, you know. Sends your mind down corridors it doesn’t need to see.”
“You’re right, Sami.” Jorma sat back on his heels and stretched. “I’ve been looking at this one spot too long. Come on, there’s beer in the camp. I’m buying.”
Jorma and Sami relaxed in the fading light, a firepit between them. Jorma turned the rabbit meat on the spit and talked between mouthfuls.
“So Quintus, he’s saying there’s a pre-Corellian necromancy temple here somewhere. He’s convinced of it. Me, I’m telling him that the mountains are a clue to the timeline of human civilization on this peninsula. The mountains are scoured by the ice age, left the lakes. Glacial runoff, you know this stuff. There’s no evidence of human habitation on the slopes or plains before about fifteen hundred years ago. So not a lot of time for a civilization to develop. What’s important for a developing culture? Food, housing, defense. Religion comes along with cultural development, sure. Most places, seasons, life, death, anthropomorphic rationalizations. Elements, apparently, around here - ice, fire, earth? - evidence of ice-age era nature spirituality that lingered. Survival needs become animistic focii. Ice from the ice age, fire for survival, earth the backbone. It’s a triangle, a fight for spiritual - magical - dominance in the emerging culture. Fire over earth but under ice, earth over ice but under fire, ice over fire but under earth.”
“Huh. Anthropologically, you’d think it’d be the other way round, you know?”
“Think about it. Early reverences for the forces of nature, right? Ice would be over earth because the glaciers sculpted the lakes. Fire melts ice to make water, fire would be over ice. And earth is immune to fire - you can burn a forest but you can’t burn a stone.”
“I’ll give you that. It’s a puzzle of empirical forces, this.”
“And the dueling forces of life and death,” Sami said nodding, “if there’s a death-spirituality culture developing - resurrection? - then an offshoot could be Quintus’ early necromancy. A resurrection philosophy, practice, something, that gives way to manipulation? Resurrection worship leads to sustaining life after mortality, leads to necromancy.”
“Resurrection into agrarian harvest culture would make more sense,” Jorma countered, “‘Death becomes life anew in the ripening grain’ kind of thing. But here, a cultural anomaly, elemental spirituality separate from the life and death duality.”
“Right, exactly my point,” Sami insisted, “if death is not tied to agrarian resurrection or transmorphism, then it follows that a spiritual interest in the afterlife exists for it’s own sake. It’s own purpose. The fact that it’s not tied to the elements or the seasons tells me it is a magical practice for it’s own sake.”
“I’ll believe that,” Jorma said, "when you show me a zombie that stands up and recites the Rites of the Small Giant."
Sami laughed and raised a glass just as Jorma’s daughter came into the firelight.
“Layla,” her father said brightly, “I thought you’d be asleep.”
“Couldn’t sleep, Daddy. I keep hearing voices.”
“What sort of voices, dancer?” Sami asked, giving Jorma a knowing look.
“Oh you know. Voices. It’s like, you can almost hear the words but not quite?”
“I think so.”
“Next time you hear them, can you tell me about it?” Jorma asked.
“You bet, Daddy. Oh - you’re eating rabbit? Oh but Snuffles…!”
“Snuffles was her pet rabbit when she was six, remember?” Jorma commented as an aside to Sami, “honey, that was ten years ago now. Snuffles has been gone a long time.”
“Yeah but I still keep his foot, see?”
“Do you think it brings you luck, dancer?” Sami asked.
“I don’t know about luck,” Layla replied, "I’ve just always kept it? I like to think Snuffles remembers me, wherever he is now.“
The young girl stood and danced a pirouette, then skipped away.
“Dancer. Sami, I like it that you’re still call her that,” Jorma said fondly
"I’m her godfather, Jorma, its my right. She was skipping and dancing as soon as she could walk. Happiest little girl in the world that, always singing and dancing, a twinkle in her eye. I remember when she was eight, Jorma, you could not keep that child still. ‘Watch me dance! I’m gonna join a traveling circus!’” Both men paused in reflection. “But now she’s a teenager, she should be thinking about boys, or her future, or both, and you drag her up here to the middle of nowhere in the Province of Morgovia to dig through temple debris with a couple of grubby old men.”
The following day, Jorma was digging at his trench with renewed vigor; he wanted proof to deny Quintus’ claim of early necromancy. How, he wasn’t sure - there must be something. A temple to life? A garden temple with green trees, populated by goblins? Something.
“Daddy, I wanna help.”
“Layla, this isn’t a good place for a little girl, we’ve talked about this. You could get hurt.”
“I’m not a little girl Daddy, I’m sixteen years old! Most girls are already learning trades or joining the Stronghold. Me, I’m stuck here watching you scrape away at stupid rocks.”
“This is very important work, kiddo. We need to find evidence - or lack of - of an ancient necromantic temple complex in the area.”
“What if you never find anything? That doesn’t mean it’s not there… ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, that’s what Uncle Sami always says.”
“You have been paying attention, haven’t you! Alright - take this trowel, and see that stone? See how the purple colour is coming through? I want you to, carefully now, reveal more of the purple. You can do that?”
“Stand back and watch a girl work,” Layla replied. She knelt down and started scraping away at an exposed vein of purple stone. She carefully scraped a few grains of sand and dirt away, then a few more, and within moments was patiently and quietly scraping stone with her trowel, occasionally changing position so her leg didnt fall asleep.
An hour later, the young archaeologist-to-be had that meditative trance state where deep focus and repetitive motions clear the mind. She calmly scraped and blew, scraped and blew, and the seam of purple stone became more apparent.
Layla licked a finger and ran it along the line of purple to bring out the colour. It snaked down along a stone slab, not like a vein of white in marble, but more where somebody had intentionally set one stone into another. Her curiosity aroused, she dug deeper and deeper, forgetting to tell her father if she found anything interesting.
The line of purple stone formed a circle, on a stone slab that had been buried, laying at an odd angle, for countless years.
Layla studied it again - it was certainly too heavy to move, but she could work on revealing the surface of the slab.
Her concentration was momentary broken by a band of self-proclaimed heroes, who had decided to search through the ruins for anything useful. Claiming resources, they called it. Looting an archaeological site, Jorma had called it. The band of heroes - a large, brash bandanna-wearing man in yellow, a woman with a massive headdress of horns and feathers, a short, bald man and a walking lizard - crashed their way through the ruins and remains of a city, showing little regard for the irreplaceable artifacts they demolished in their slaughter of indigenous wildlife. Layla stood and watched them for a moment. The yellow man would do something to make creatures pay attention to him, and they’d suddenly fall over dead or flee. The bald man was happily swinging his hammer, yelling and shouting, and the lizard was waving his small axe and physically crashing into people. Every now and then they’d all pause and face headdress-woman, who would raise her arms and recite something; then they’d all get back to running and crashing. The archaeologist-in- training in Layla wanted to admonish them for being so disrespectful to temple artifacts, but the teenaged girl in her desperately wanted to join them!
Eventually they moved on, leaving a path of destruction in their wake, and after a last wistful glance, Layla returned her attention to the trench.
The slab, now that she examined it more closely, was about three feet across with a narrow depression in the middle. The ring of purple was inlaid three inches from the edge - it looked like someone had cut a groove in the stone and filled it with crushed gemstones, and somehow fused them together.
Working with the trowel for so long had worn a spot on her finger, which itched and very slightly oozed blood. She rubbed at it and went to stand up, putting her weight on the middle of the slab.
"Oh you’re back. Hi! Hey I can hear you now.“
"Yeah you said that already.
"Oh, you want some more? I can maybe work a little more out?” Layla squeezed at the sore spot on her finger, pulling up a drop of blood and wiped it on the center of the slab.
"Okay, okay, wow. Well you can’t have mine. There’s rabbits, mice and such around here, lemme find you something?"
"And we’re back to that again. You’re a lousy conversationalist, you know that?"
Hurry. You awoke…
“Uh huh. Look, there’s a tasty rat. Rat, not rabbit.” Layla stood and aimed her trowel. It wasn’t as accurate as the circus throwing knives she used to practice with, but the trowel spun end over end and struck the rat, killing it instantly.
“See, voice? I still got it!” She skipped over to the rat. It was grey, just over a foot long, and bleeding from the impact of the trowel.
She used her meal-knife to cut the wound a little wider, and reverently lay the rat in the middle of the slab. The blood flowed easily, and as she watched seemed to flow up the bowl of the slab, to soak into the line of purple. In seconds the rat was bloodless, looking like someone had left the corpse in the sun too long.
"Eww, that’s nasty. That enough, Mr Voice?“
"Been a long time since you had a good meal, huh. Look at me, talking to a birdbath. Bloodbath.” Layla stretched and looked around, then realized it had been hours since she’d seen either her father or Sami.
"Which way did Dad go, Mr Voice? Do you know?"
Follow the Path of the Midnight Wishing
"Oh aren’t we all creepy all of a sudden! Okay, where’s that?"
Through the Blades
Layla looked around and saw what could have been a gateway made from giant swords. Only ruins remained, nothing but rusted stumps and broken stone. The teenage girl picked up her trowel and her knife, and stepped across the broken ground to step through the blades.
The grassy footpath descended between two steep slopes of stone, and after a while she noticed that the sides were not only becoming more vertical, but appeared to be stone tiles, carved and intentionally placed, lining the pathway. A strange looking symbol made of the same purple etching told her she was going the right way.
Up ahead she heard her father’s scraping trowel and his quiet muttering - he always mumbled to himself when he worked. She found him in a stone-lined alcove, working at a partially-buried statue. The skeletal figure had lost an arm, and was buried in dirt from the waist down, but it was obviously a statue of some importance.
Behold the sacrifice
Jorma looked up when he heard Layla’s voice, and gave his daughter a slight scowl.
“Girl, I told you to stay outside, where that purple stone was. Did you find anything?”
“I, yeah, it was a round - like a birdbath - and the voice told me to come --”
“You heard the voice again? What did it say? Can you tell me?”
“It said to come here, follow the blades…”
"Blades. Well I may have to give Quintus credit, I think I’ve lost this bet. Layla, what do you think of this statue?“
She studied the skeletal figure a little more closely. It had a carved sash across its chest, and the one hand she could see clutched a wicked looking knife. More of the crushed purple stone was inlaid in the hilt of the knife, clutched in the stone skeletal hand.
"Feed you what?”
“I’m sorry Layla, what did you say?”
"The voice, it said Feed me.“
"What? Nah -no, I’m not killing him. That’s my Dad!”
"Princess, I think you should stop listening to the–"
Jorma tried to say something else, when he fell to his knees choking.
"Is that you doing that? Stop it, you’re hurting him!“
Or he dies
"I - no, no!!” In a panic, Layla gouged her hand with her knife and smeared her blood on the ribs of the skeletal statue. “Take mine! Take it! Just leave Daddy alone!”
“Layla,” Jorma gasped, “what are you doing? You don’t know what it --”
“I don’t care!” she screamed, "just don’t hurt my Daddy!“
Kill for me
"NO!! I will not kill my Daddy! Dad, I’m…” Layla turned and knelt before her father, who was gasping and clutching his throat, “I didn’t know, I thought it was… I dunno, a funny ghost…”
“Layla,” Jorma gasped, “this place is - get away from here!”
“I’m not leaving without you.” She tried to help her father to stand, but a rock slid across the ground and wedged his foot. Another flew from the base of the statue and struck him in the knee, bringing him to the ground. Another flew from the ground and struck Jorma on the back, pushing him over. More stones flew in, cutting his skin, knocking him down, slowly burying Layla’s father alive.
"STOP IT! YOU’RE KILLING HIM!"
"Anything, just stop hurting my Daddy! Please!"
Kill for me
"YES! ANYONE BUT HIM!"
In a heartbeat, the stones stopped. Wounded, bleeding, Jorma staggered slowly to his feet.
“Baby, what have you done?!”
“I - I saved your life, Daddy.” Layla said simply.
“Jorma!” Sami came running into the alcove. “I heard shouting, is he…?”
"Daddy’s fine, Sami. He’s okay."
The older archaeologist glanced from his friend, to his god-daughter, to the silent statue, and back to the dark-haired girl.
“Something’s different,” he said slowly, “you’ve changed.”
“A little,” she confessed, "I’m not… sure I can continue digging here. I have to go meet somebody. Daddy, don’t worry, I promise I’ll take care of you!"
She left Sami and her father in the ruined temple, along with her secrets and her past.
“Hey! Hey wait!” The bright-eyed girl in purple leather clambered easily over a tree stump, a long knife in each hand.
"…hello?" Hawkmoon said warily, eyeing the girl. She adjusted her feathered crown as she watched the teenager approach.
“See that apple?” the girl said, pointing. Hawkmoon followed her sight to an apple wedged between two branches, eighty feet away. The tall woman glanced at her shorter, bald companion, who just studied the scene and shrugged.
With a spin and a flick, one of the girl’s long knives spun through the air and sliced the apple neatly in half. She danced over to it and walked back, easily juggling both her knives and half the apple.
“You need me,” she said with a grin.
“Bane…” Hawkmoon called out without taking her eyes off the girl, "You need to see this…"
The large, yellow-clad man jogged over to join the group.
“You’re the one who was watching us, from the ruins,” he said after a second demonstration. “I knew it’d only be a matter of time.” He extended a hand, and Layla took it eagerly, a twinkle in her eye.
“You know, little girl,” he said, “we could use a nimble blade but it can get messy…”
“I can do messy.”
“I can do bloody.”
“Could you kill someone, if you had to?”
“Oh, sure,” Layla said casually.
“She’s hiding something,” Hawkmoon said flatly.
“I made a bargain. Every time I kill, my Daddy gets to live another day. So, I figure I can make my Daddy live forever!”
“Karil…do you think you can trust her?” Bane asked.
“I think…” the shorter man paused and winked at Layla, who grinned a wide grin back. “I think feather-head here is too serious sometimes. We need more laughter in the company.”