Chapter 21:

Chapter 21 - Best Left Buried


It was hot in the desert. Mimi suspected that she’d never had a more obvious thought in her life, but there it was anyway… Breaking her down. Weakening her resolve. Making her want to turn her dustsnuffle around and lead her disappointed mentor all the way back to Sebastopol. But she couldn’t do that; not with the Call ringing in her ears as purely as she’d ever heard it.

Besides, the life of a Gunsmith was full of setbacks–defined by them, really. She had come all the way here, to Truvelo, to see what destiny had in store for her. It would be beyond stupid to throw all that away just because of a struggle or two… Right? Even though she easily could have been a model back home. Even though she definitely would have had a place among the Trigger City elite if she’d just stayed there, ignoring the Call and any bouts of arcane inspiration that arose. She’d have married a nice, rich man with no spine and walked all over him, getting everything she ever wanted forever. It would have been lovely.

Instead, she had dust in her eye.

“Fuck! I hate this place!” she complained. Anua looked on with amusement in her eyes, as she almost always did. Even after over a year of apprenticeship she still seemed to delight in judging Mimi for her privileged background and combative attitude. She never said anything, of course… But she didn’t need to. A lifetime of experience had gifted her with the ability to say whatever she wanted with her eyes alone. It had also, Mimi noted, gifted her with lots and lots of wrinkles.

Ha! In the end, beautiful young women like her always had the last laugh. Still, it annoyed her to see Anua riding sidesaddle so effortlessly. She was probably only doing it because of the long, colorful–and admittedly fashionable–one-piece dress she was wearing… But she just looked so comfortable. It was a level of ease and grace that Mimi would probably never achieve–at least, not on the backs of the horrible, hairy creatures they were riding.

Mimi looked down at her legs, splayed to either side of her own dustsnuffle’s broad back. As usual, they were lined with tiny adhesive bandages. She had long since found that the Truvelan climate–and many of its weather patterns–didn’t agree with her fair, sensitive skin… And neither did her work as a Gunsmith. Small injuries and blemishes were common, and Mimi was determined to cover them up. She got a lot of funny looks for it, of course, but it was better than looking like a bloody, pockmarked mess, wasn’t it?

She thought so.

“I can teach you to ride as I do, if you wish.” Anua offered. As always, she proved to be insufferably tuned-in to the peculiarities of Mimi’s inner monologue; in that sense, she was nearly as bad as her mother.

“I’m fine.” Mimi insisted, facing forward. “We’re almost there–I can feel it.”

She could feel Anua’s skepticism without looking. They were far out in the dunes, now; it had been ages since they’d passed any signs of civilization. Well, active civilization at least–there were plenty of dustworn ruins about. They stuck out of the sand like tombstones, harkening back to a violent age long since past. It might have been interesting if Mimi hadn’t already seen about a hundred on the way out here.

“Odd that the Call is leading you so far into the desert.” her mentor observed. “Potential Gunslingers rarely stray so far from the towns and cities. We must be chasing an adventurous soul.”

“Hopefully they’re a tough soul, too… Because I’ve half a mind to beat them about the head for making us come all this way.”

“Ahh, Mimi… As I have tried to tell you, the Call is no one’s responsibility but your own.” Great. Another lecture. Mimi couldn’t help but cringe; luckily, from her current perspective, Anua wouldn’t be able to tell. “We choose to follow it, or we do not. If you begin to resent the people for whom we craft our works, the Gunsmith’s path will become a misery for you.”

Mimi snorted. “Become?

Anua clucked her tongue. “I taught you better than that, child.” she said. “Still, I suppose I can understand how you feel… Traveling the Diflagrati desert is not for the faint of heart.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad if we’d come across a town at some point… Or a camp. Or something!”

“Sadly, the desert has not been properly settled since the time of the Old Magocracy.” Anua explained. “And, back then, it was our enemies settling it. When the Enfielders crossed the ocean to invade us, it was here that they first landed.”

Mimi glanced at the worn-out hulks of old architecture around her with newfound respect. Many of the ruins were still shockingly complete, and the telltale sparkle of their walls suggested that they were hewn from the very sand they stood upon. Now that she was looking closely, she realized that the teal-colored band running around the foot of each structure probably wasn’t for decoration as she’d imagined; if the Magocracy had fashioned these buildings, in fact, it could only be one thing:

Arcan, the refined form of arcanic ore–the very same material every Gunsmith used to ply their trade, and that the Magocracy had used as a medium for spell infusion.

In a rush, she put it all together: the buildings were made of sand, yes, but not in the conventional sense. Long ago, a team of wizards must have used their powers to lift the sand up from the very dunes, mold it into a functional shape, and install a band of infused arcan around the base to preserve their work. That narrow band of arcan had been holding the sand aloft for a hundred years! No wonder there were so many ruins around; the mages must have been able to raise whole fortresses in an instant!

Mimi’s mind boggled at the ramifications of such power. Most days, she hardly felt powerful enough to get out of bed.

“The only people with an interest in this place now would be historians–and the odd treasure-hunter, perhaps.” Anua continued. “I am very curious to see where your Call is leading us, my beloved apprentice. In all my years of experience as a Gunsmith, I have only been so far from home a handful of times.”

Mimi had closed her eyes. The Call was thrumming all throughout her body, now; whoever she was looking for was close. “You’re about to get your chance, Master. It’s very close now.” She was so attuned to her surroundings that she could sense Anua looking about herself in confusion.

“But, how can that be? I see no one nearby–no smoke, no signs of life at all…” Anua trailed off. Mimi opened her eyes and looked back, frowning, to find her mentor’s eyes wide open. “Unless…”

“Unless what?”

Anua blanched–a difficult thing to discern, considering her abundantly sun-kissed complexion. “...I am sorry to say this, child, but we should turn back. This Call is too dangerous to answer.”

Mimi practically fell off her mount. “What? Are you crazy? We’ve been out here for days! And we’re finally close!”

Anua’s eyes seemed drawn to something. Mimi followed her gaze, and at the other end of it she found the strangest thing:

A door–sandy, like the ruins. It was set right into the side of a dune, its frame rimmed by a broad band of arcan. A gemstone-like protrusion glinted on the front of it, right where the door’s two halves met in the middle.

Mimi squinted at it, shielding her eyes from the sun. Was it a mirage?

“What is that?”

“A tomb… For the living.” Anua answered cryptically.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Anua shuddered, taking in a deep breath. “The mages of old hated those unlike them. The mana-stunted were seen as slaves–little more than objects. To be a magic-user, yet produce a mana-stunted heir, was the greatest shame imaginable to them.

“...But the mages were academics. They disliked throwing away anything that might one day be of use, given enough time and research. Thus, when a mage birthed one of the mana-stunted, the child was spared. It was not killed, but neither could it live among them. Instead, it was preserved in the hopes that, one day, they could infuse the child with magic in the same way they infused arcan.”

Anua paused, lifting her chin in the direction of the duneside door. “Thus, they entombed their young. Any who lacked the capacity for magic were buried alive, their ‘coffins’ infused with stasis spells to prolong their lives. As far as anyone knows, they lie within them still, awaiting the day they will be awakened, infused, and welcomed as a true citizen of the Magocracy.”

Mimi stared at her blankly. The woman’s story was just… So twisted. So unbelievable. How could all that possibly be true?

“Do you see, Mimi? Do you understand why we must turn back?” Anua asked. “There can be only one reason why your Call led you here. The new Gunslinger we have been questing for… It is no normal human. It is a failed child of the Old Magocracy; one of our ancient enemies, raised to hate people like us and everything we stand for. They lie beyond that door, waiting to be revived… And we have come here to gift them a weapon of unimaginable power.”

Mimi looked away, doing her best to digest everything she’d just been told. It certainly seemed unwise to continue, knowing what she knew now… But the Call was difficult to resist at this proximity. And, up to this point, Mimi had never failed to get her weapons into the hands of the Gunslinger they belonged to. After such a spotless career, short as it may be, it just felt wrong to turn back.

Plus, if a person really had been lying underground for a century, wouldn’t it be wrong to leave them undisturbed? Ancient enemies or not, wasn’t waking them up…The right thing to do?

Mimi looked to her master with defiance in her eyes. Anua met that gaze wearily, as if she’d been expecting–and dreading–her pupil’s next words:

“Show me how to get through that door, Master. We’re going in.”

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