The sound of engines echoed through the catacombs. Even with the cotton in our ears we could hear the grind of gears and the hiss of steam. The air smelled of oil and the rock around us vibrated with exertions of the machines. We turned a corner into a great open chamber.
The room was filled with perhaps two hundred of Windglass’s automen. They stood shoulder to shoulder, posture erect, eyes closed.
Windglass patted the man on a shoulder, just a master pats the head of his dog. He said, “Ade was my first. He’d been attacked by a lion. His brother caught the beast with its teeth in the poor man’s skull. He killed it with a machete and then carried Ade, over his shoulder, the four miles to my laboratory. There was naught I could do, not by conventional methods. The skull and brain were far too damaged for me to simply wrap his head with bandages. And the opportunity to test my devices was too tempting. I told the brother that Ade had died and then purchased the body. My greatest difficulty lay in assuring him that I had no intent to use the body for sorcery.”
Omtomo walked with the rest of the herd. She stood at least thirty feet tall, taller perhaps when she straightened her neck. She moved slowly, less like an elephant than like a tree that had decided to take a stroll. Her sisters gave her room to swing her legs but otherwise seemed to pay her no special mind. She was family.
Tchi!xo slowly extended his fingers to touch the golem’s chest. When it did not react he flattened his palm over the center where a heart would have been were it a creature of flesh. He turned to look at me, raising his eyebrows in query. I shrugged in response. Whatever had driven the golem these last hundred miles seemed to have been exhausted.
I set down my pack and drew out my hammer. The golem turned its head, the blank eyes seeming to start at me. Clearly some animation remained.
Reichardt re-entered the room carrying a tray that bore a fine cut glass decanter and four matching glasses. He set it upon the table and filled each glass with generous draft of red gold liquid. He placed a glass each before me and my Father. A third glass he placed on the window sill across the room. He gave a sharp whistle and then turned to face us. He raised his own glass. “To unexpected guests!” he said and downed the contents in one swallow.
Father and I followed his example. The liquid burned on its descent to my stomach but in a very pleasant way. It tasted of honey and pepper and ginger. My eyes watered and I felt the tightness of my muscles relax. I looked to the window. The glass remained on the sill but now it was empty.
The corpse was headless. Based on the condition of the neck I guessed that the head had been pulled off rather than removed with a blade, or even teeth. I took a drink from my canteen and wished, not for the last time, that it contained rum instead of water. I had no mood for monsters. I had not eaten well in days and what I had managed to get down either insisted on coming back up or passing through too quickly.
I studied the treeline. Briefly I caught the flash of eyes reflecting the setting sun. Something very large moved deeper into the shadows. I drank another swallow of water and followed.
La’al sneered, “You speak with a baboon’s tongue. There is no world beyond D’Chao’s Teeth. There is only forest and the dead city. The city is dead because its people sought to outshine the glories of Heaven. They pulled gold, silver and gems from the living earth to decorate their temples and themselves. And Heaven turned away. It withheld the rain until all was dry and the gardens gave no yield.”
“Were you there?” I asked.
La’al’s nostrils flared and she curled her upper lip. “My spirit was there. I carry the same spirit as my first grandmother. We called to Heaven for forgiveness. We made the pact that allowed the People to survive.”
We fled up the mountain. Father and I spidered above the worst of the ground cover, carrying first one, then another of the rest of the party to higher ground. The German girl remained nearly catatonic. The only sign she gave to being aware of her surroundings was a slight whimper when I first took her into the trees.
Kaang took the rear guard. He moved more quickly that any of us, ranging back and forth through the thicket in order to keep aware of our pursuers. Despite his speed, he made his passage nearly silent and I rarely caught more than a glimpse of his white fur. Our pursuers were less interested in staying hidden. We heard their chatter, hoots and birdlike whistles below us. Their voices became neither closer nor more distant, always staying perhaps a half mile behind us.
Once I began to make note, I could see the shape of the city that had once thrived here. The jungled islands were great buildings now so overgrown with millennia of foliage that no stone could be seen. The wide lake channels had once been the broad avenues through which the city’s citizens had traveled, congregated, bartered and celebrated. Chuma and Djoser paddled no more than was necessary to keep the canoe moving forward. The water, despite its stillness, was surprisingly clear. I could large reddish black fish moving lazily over the muddy bottom.
“This place is so old that even the ghosts have abandoned it,” said Chuma. He seemed almost disappointed.
Father lowered his spear and stared. The black lion snorted. It sniffed the air, seeking our scent. Its eyes glowed in the darkness. It was clearly not a lion of this world. Father set the spear on the ground and stepped out of the brush into full view of the beast. The lion growled.
Father looked over his shoulder to show me a happy grin. “I know this lion,” he said.
I groaned. “That is well and fine, Father, but you have not been in Egypt in nearly two hundred years. Can you trust that a lion’s memory matches an elephant’s?”