It was dark when I woke up, I couldn't see far.
Blinking, I sat up gasping at the pain from my entire left side as my body told me I should probably stay still. I rubbed my ribs and arm and groaned at the ache, bruised but not broken. Gods, where was I?
I still couldn’t see anything, instead I began to feel around on all fours. The floor felt hard and cool, smooth stone covered with a thin layer of sand. Looking up I could see a very distant starry night sky like a crack in the blanket of darkness, finally I remembered where I was.
The Great Canyon.
It came in flashes. Showing up to the desert for a trade, Chunnly getting shot through the back. My face scrunched up as tears began to fall from my face. Chunnly you fool. Certain death looming over me, a man in black plate, angry eyes, furious at the world. But when the time came he didn’t smash my head in, he fought for me, told me to fight too. The memories came in faster now, fighting, stabbing, getting covered in blood. Being pushed to the canyon edge and a madman grabbing me jumping down.
All the way down he held me and laughed, but we were going too fast and the way down too far. I remembered him grabbing out into the wall shaking something ferocious in his grip. He kept slipping and tumbling but tried again and again. Too fast. Near the end he grabbed something that yanked us and threw me from his grip.
Screaming, I remember screaming until I hit the ground.
No wonder my side hurt.
Was he alive down here? No point in moving around in the dark. I rolled onto my back, tears streaming down my face. I thought then to Chunnly, to the many times he had come to me when I was crying as a child. Bringing treats and funny rumors.
He wouldn't be coming now. I wept myself to sleep.
I woke up the next morning to a faint light filtering in from above. I slowly got up and looked around, blinking and shielding my eyes from the sudden brightness. I was still alive and my ribs still ached but less so. The canyon bottom was like another world.
The canyon bottom was a vast, arid landscape. The rocky walls of the canyon rose up around me like a prison, casting deep shadows over the sand covered rock floor. The sky was a pale blue, far above me, with wisps of clouds shimmering in the morning sun. Down in the deep there wasn't a plant in sight. I scanned around for the man in black plate, Brutus.
I caught a glimpse of black metal some fifty feet away. I struggled to my feet wishing I had my cane. Leaning up against the canyon wall I limped my way towards him.
As I got closer I saw that the glint from before was indeed the man and that he was thoroughly screwed. He laid flat on his back and atop him a huge chunk of sandstone rock rested on him, the ground beneath him cracked and shattered under the weight. I looked up and saw chunks missing from the canyon wall, perhaps thrown loose when he attempted to slow us on the way down.
I limped over to him and almost died. Behind the huge sandstone rock revealed another sharp hundred foot drop onto a deeper section of the canyon below, which I almost slipped into. I took a step back taking deep breaths. I made my way to the helmet of Brutus and kicked it.
“You still alive?” I asked.
He had saved me, I glanced around at the environment, if you could call this saved… but he also had killed many of my men. He didn’t respond and I moved to kick him again but a deep voice sounded out from within the helm.
“Kick me again and I’ll break your ankle,” he said.
I sighed in relief, wincing to sit down beside him. “Too late, feels like it’s already sprained.” I glanced at the huge rock stuck atop him wondering how he was still alive. “You're stuck.” I stated. He responded by moving one arm to grab the rock and his legs dug into stone as he strained, the rock shook but after a moment he let out a sight and it settled again.
“You’re stuck.” I repeated and he grunted.
Well wasn’t this a fine mess. Traitors have taken the crown, my palace guard was all dead or in shambles, I fell down a seemingly inescapable pit and the only company I had was a monstrous man who had tried to kill me and seemed to hate words. Worse yet my leg ached ferociously.
Seemingly reading my mind words escaped from that black great helm “It could be worse.” he said. I looked at him wondering how on Talmanar this could be worse.
“Could be dead,” he continued.
It took all my Queenly willpower to not kick him in the head again.
“Why’d you help me?” I asked, catching him off guard.
He was silent for a while. “Felt like it.” he said.
I nodded, not prying further. I knew sometimes it was best to let things open on their own. “I just need to regain my strength for now,” he continued.
"Do you have any food or water?" I asked him.
“No. You?” he replied.
“No.” I sighed, trying to ignore my throbbing leg and the horrific scene of destruction around us. I needed to find a way out, soon.
“There is water down there.” Brutus said, nodding towards the lower region of the canyon where a stream flowed downwards into darker depths. I got up limping towards the edge of our current cliff and saw some rocks that seemed at least unlikely to be fatal going down.
“I have a water skin on my waist.” he told me and I reached under the rock grabbing it.
I made my way down the cliff face slowly, very slowly. Like the first time making love I didn’t want to fuck this up, more than once I had to stop to take a breath less I go over the edge. Eventually I made it down and saw the stream, it came out from the canyon walls perhaps dripping down from some underground water source. This level of the canyon wasn’t flat and sloped slightly further down into a section that didn’t have direct view of the sky.
I leaned down near the stream sipping some.
“How is it?” I heard Brutus yell from atop the cliff where I saw him looking down at me.
“To die for.” I replied and heard him chuckle.
I waited for the waterskin and my attention shifted to the dark section of the canyon. I must have been tired because I saw shapes moving within the darkness. I must have been very tired because I started hearing a chittering of something hard on stone moving around. I must have been exhausted because I saw the oddest looking creature walk out from the shadow.
It was akin to a crustacean, if that crustation was the size of a dog. It had two long beady eyes that came out of a shell and a mouth whose carapice like teeth clattered up and down. It inspected me clicking its claws.
"Brutus!" I yelled.
Its beady eyes moved up and down as I spoked and it began to creep closer, its claws clicking on the stone with each step.
"What the fuck is that?"
There was a pause "A sand walker I would presume." he said like a bird watcher who had just seen a rare species of speckled haring.
"Is it going to attack me?" I questioned.
"Probably," he replied.
I felt panic begin to creep in as the creature became more confident moving forward faster. I cursed struggling to my feet making my way back up the cliff at a dangerous pace. As I neared the top I looked back down and saw the creature staring at me from the cliff bottom. It stared for a long time before clicking its claws and walking back into the darkness.
I let out a relieved breath making my way back to Brutus.
“What’s a sand walker?” I asked, trying and failing to keep the hysteria out of my voice.
“Only ever heard rumors about em.” he replied.
“They seem pretty fucking real to me, would be a great time to spill any rumors you heard.” I said.
“You know how nobody takes contracts to explore the Great Canyon,” he said.
“Yes.” I replied.
“Rumors say it’s cuz the Canyon is filled with Sand Walkers,” he said.
“Okay.” I said.
“Say they look and act like crustaceans you'd find in the coasts, except they grow bigger here, a lot bigger.” he said.
“I got that.” I confirmed. Those large long vertical eyes still fresh in my memory. Brutus nodded and said nothing more “Is that it? What about how to fight them off, get rid of them?” I pushed. A sound of what must have been thinking came out of the great helm followed by a grunt of what I assume was recognition.
“There’s a rhyme; Sand Walker, Sand Walker. Be too slow and they’ll eat you whole. Sand Walker, Sand Walker. Try not sword or ax cuz they grow big and slow.” he attempted to sing.
I let out a hoarse laugh at both his horrid signing and the irony of the situation. A cripple and a trapped man stuck in a pit with dog-sized crustaceans whose only rumored weakness was that they were slow. I looked up at the sky wondering if the Gods had a sense of humor or were just cruel. Probably a cruel sense of humor.
Brutus grumbled something about my mother and stopped singing “Well, they don’t seem to like the sun much either, maybe it dries them up.” he tried. I nodded, that sounded like a more useful weakness, if there was anything at all down here to burn. I unscrewed the wine skin holding it out to him.
“Take off your helmet and drink, we need you recovered soon.” I said.
He hesitated for a moment, his hand stopping half way as if he remembered something. “What?” I said while taking a sip “Think you're uglier than me?” I grinned at him. He scoffed, grabbing his great helm with one huge gauntleted hand pulling it off awkwardly and placing it down with a surprisingly heavy thump.
The wineskin froze near my mouth as I saw his face for the first time.
Grizzled and middle-ages. Perhaps he was younger but the scars did him no justice. A nose so disfigured it seemed like eventually he just gave up trying to set it right and a face lopsided from one too many hits. Scars criss-crossed all over from close shaves. A face that spoke of brutal experience and violence. His skin was putrid yellow, accentuating the dark bags below his eyes. His nose was bent at an odd angle and his mouth was drawn. His head was mostly bald, only a few patches remained, not a normal progression of hair loss by any means only made more disgusting by purple veins that ran up from his neck and throughout his face. His dark brown eyes observed me closely set behind large brows.
He let out a sigh and spoke, his voice raspy and broken from years of abuse, “It’s a long story, one I’d rather not tell.” He said as he tried to take a swig from the wine skin. The motion seemed to require a finesse that someone as large and stuck as him didn't have. He started coughing and dribbling some over his face, cursing fiercely.
I grabbed the wineskin from him "Let me." I said. He started to argue, men and their pride.
"Every time I have to go down there to get more water I risk being eaten by a crab. Queen Azeal Ulgar eaten by a crab. I don’t want that on my tomb so stop wasting it and let me." I said my voice brooking no argument.
He swallowed his pride and nodded eventually. "Good." I said "Now lift up your head, it's hard to drink laying down flat." I remembered coughing the first few times trying to drink while bedridden for bruises and broken bones. It had been Chunnly who helped me then.
Brutus drank deeply and the windskin quickly became empty, I was surprised at the rate he drank and couldn’t take it away in time. I held it up before me upside down seeing a few drops come out, I cast an annoyed glance at him.
At least he had enough sense to look slightly abashed. “Sorry, my hunger got the best of me.” he said with an odd look in his eyes.
"It's alright," I said, closing the wineskin. "You've been through a lot these past few days."
He laughed. "Aye, that I have," he said. He closed his eyes for a moment and the area fell silent. I could see the weight of his thoughts in his eyes as he opened them again. He let out a long sigh and said, "You fell from my grip as we fell, I thought you died." I studied his face and what I saw there was not concerned for me personally but for the result of his choice.
“Guess you slowed us down just enough, still bruised to oblivion though. Did you really have to jump?” I asked.
“No other way to save us both.” he replied. “The people seem to like you, slaves too.” he said, catching me off guard. “I promised them what they wanted, it’s a common trick by rulers to win favor.”
“Was it?” he said.
“Was it what?”
“A trick.” he finished eyes searching for something.
I opened my mouth to respond but thought about it more, on all the actions I had moved forward with and what I believed “No.” I finally said “In this rare case, what the people want is what the City needs.”
He nodded, grabbing his helm and slipping it back on as if being in my vision for too much was hurting him. “Your going to have to get some more water, might as well go while its still bright out.”
I scowled, rising to my feet with some effort “I’m your Queen and you have me fetching water. Unbelievable” his eyes flashed with amusement through those slits “Ah apologies, please go fetch some water your Majesty.” I cursed him all the way down but felt a slight tug at the corner of my lips smiling despite the situation and the past events. I had to keep fighting, to get back and win, for the City, for Chunnly.
My smile disappeared real quick when instead of one dog-sized crab appeared, two appeared instead. Now I could have fought them but instead I hobbled as fast as I could back up the ledge, Brutus could go thirsty for all I fucking cared.
I awoke later that night to an odd sound.
Yesterday had been an eventful match of cat and mouse where I reluctantly and with much cursing managed to fill up a few wineskins over and over for myself and Brutus. My crustation observers always came out of the dark when I came down and scurried back in when I went back up. I was getting quite used to them, it was almost like playing with a dog, if that dog had great claws the size of your arm and most likely wanted to eat you.
Nonetheless I was doing well to manage my fear of them.
So let me just say it was a surprise to find myself screaming at the sight of two crustaceans clinking their claws and mandibles against the stuck Brutus trying to crack him open to get at his juicy bits.
Luckily this night the moon was full and rays of moonlight made its way weakly down into the Canyon floor, it was an almost artistic representation of man. A stuck giant swatting helplessly at two crabs as they poked at his armor. It would have been if not for all the shouting, screaming and cursing. One of the crabs turned its two eye stalks round without turning its body at all which made me regret making any noise. It turned towards me stalking forward, clicking its claws in a more hungry curious manner than the preferred cautious scarred manner.
“What the hell is going on Brutus?” I yelled struggling to my feet pulling out my dagger and backing away.
“Sand Walkers-” he grunted keeping the searching claws of the other one away from his neck with a grunt “Climbed up the cliff, fuck! Buggers are strong, don't get caught!” he said.
“Brilliant fucking idea!” I shouted, stumbling backwards as fast as my crippled leg could take me. Dammit why couldn't it have been my arm! As suspected the slow sand walker was having little trouble keeping pace with a cripple, this wasn’t going to work!
I chucked my knife at it aiming for its eye stalks but they moved apart letting the knife fly by harmlessly, it looked back at the knife which clattered behind it giving me time to pull out another knife from my boot. I lunged forward while it was distracted slashing at its eye stalks and this time catching both of them cutting through them causing a clearish liquid to squir out and the sand walker to let out a shrill chittering. It snapped out with its claws and I had to back peddle real hard to avoid them, I saw it ram its claw deep into the rock leaving grooves in the stone. As I stopped moving it waddled around looking for me but its eyes were gone. Eventually it gave up heading back to the struggling Brutus who was having trouble fending off the one stuck as he was.
No. no. no. no. no! They were going to eat my only way out of here!
“Hey you rat-eater, I'm over here!” I screamed, tossing my knife at it. The knife clinked off its carapace back harmlessly but it got its attention. The sand walker froze, turning its eyeless body towards me. It paused for a second before it let out an angry chitter and charged me. As the creature got closer, I scrambled to the side, my bad leg making it difficult. My mind raced as I tried to think of a way out of this desperate situation.
The damn thing was relentlessly picking onto every scrape and scruff my feet made as I dodged its deadly grasp. The sand walker had backed me to the cliff edge and I was damn exhausted, my leg pulsing with each haggard step. With no other options in sight, I decided to take one final chance. I took a deep breath and kicked a rock to the side. The crab lunged towards it, hitting nothing but air. I came up behind the crab and using all my might I dug my hands into its carapace trying to tilt it over. I chittered, snapping its claws in the air but it couldn't quite reach me. I screamed at it, cursing every profanity that came to mind. Spurred on by the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I pulled out one final bit of energy and tipped it off balance pushing it over the edge. It chittered all the way down until I heard a very satisfying crunch.
I fell to my ass gripping my leg face contorted with pain. Every painful spasm telling me I shouldn’t have done that. I looked over to Brutus who was still holding the damn thing back with his bare hands.
“Fuck! Hold on!” I said as I began the painful process of getting to my feet, I stopped partway as Brutus let out a horrid scream. The slits in his helmet seemed to almost glow red in the moonlight as he began yanking at the sand walker. He pulled with his huge arms yanking legs out of their sockets. The Sank Walker tried to limp away but he pulled it back pinning one of its snappers closed. It chittered and its carapice covered mouth opened, Brutus rammed his hand into it and the creature let out squelching sounds wiggling and snapping but leaving no scratches on his armor. After some time it stopped moving and Brutus removed his hand.
I raised an eyebrow “Well that’s one way to-” I started but what I saw next haunted me. Brutus took off his helmet and underneath it I saw a monster, it was the same face as before but different. Eye’s crazed and bloodshot grinning like mad, he grabbed pieces of the crab crushing the carapace taking huge bites of the white flesh inside.
I watched in disgust as he continued to feast on the remains of the sand walker, his bloodshot eyes wide with glee. Eating and chewing blood and organs like a dog. After he cleaned up every last bit like it had been some gourmet meal his wide eyes turned to me. Hungry.
“Gods.” I said, remembering the operating room in the mines filled with blood and odd creatures "What did they do to you in those mines?"
He began to laugh, a deep guttural laugh that echoed through the night. "They made me a monster." he said, eyes locked with mine, and I believed him. After some time he put on his great helm again saying nothing more. I leaned against a rock at the cliff edge looking down to see another Sand Walker appearing from the deeper areas. It chittered up to the smashed body of its brethren that I had pushed off and observed it for a moment.
Then it began feeding on the corpse, great claws breaking up shells and its carapace mouth ripping up flesh. A ravenous creature that would eat its kind without second thought, not so different from the City.
I sighed leaning my head back watching it eat, I wouldn’t be getting much more sleep tonight.
No more Sandwalker’s approached us that night, the ones that showed up seemed satisfied enough to feast on their less fortunate sibling. They all skittered back into the darkness by morning time, the body below nothing more than scraps of carapice now.
“The blood draw more and more.” I was surprised to hear his voice but at least it seemed like he… wasn’t whatever he was last night. “We must leave soon.”
I looked over to Brutus, still as a statue under that great boulder, would he really be able to free himself? I looked up at the tall Canyon walls.
Seeing my doubtful glances he asked me to get him some more water so he could try. I sighed limping my way down the cliff to the stream filling up the empty wineskin. I looked at the consumed corpse wondering what else there was to eat down here for creatures so large. As I got up taking a sip a glint of metal caught my eye, it was coming from the darker part of the Canyon down the slope.
Squinting I could make out the shape of a sword hilt and blade, perhaps it had been dropped by the battle above or by some long dead adventurer. It wouldn’t hurt to have a sword. I began moving towards it but stopped when I saw the blade move. There was a slow scuttle of heavy clinks and a deep-pitched chitering, louder and slower than before.
I backed off slowly as I saw it appear from the shadows, before what looked nothing more than a large rock was in fact a Sand Walker taller than me. Embedded in its carapace was a sword. Great, an experienced crustacean.
It snapped its two huge claws and it sounded like my coffin closing. It began lumbering forward two huge eye stalks trained on me. I cursed backpedaling once again making my way to the path up the cliff but the creature was surprisingly quick for its size, at least quicker than a cripple, and worse it was smarter too. It slammed one great claw down on the path sending shards of stone flying before I could make my way up, its other claw came out and I fell to my stomach to avoid it crawling the other way.
“BRUTUS!” I screamed but heard no response.
A sharp leg came down in front of me blocking my way and I pushed myself up against the cliff face looking up at its carapace mouth which opened and closed revealing odd teeth ready to mince me.
I laughed, “Queen Azeal Ulgar, eaten by a giant crab.” The Sand Walker didn’t seem to care for the humor and was about to take a huge bite out of me when a giant boulder landed on it crushing it like a bug. I was sprayed with chunks and yellow blood of the Sand Walker which left me blinking and downright stinky.
Whipping my eyes and looking up I saw Brutus, no longer stuck, standing atop the cliff looking down on me, he was breathing heavily.
“You alright?” he yelled.
I nodded, too speechless to reply. My heart was pounding as I looked at the now-lifeless Sand Walker. Brutus made his way down the cliff helping me to my feet. We both looked at the broken carcass of the creature.
"You know," he said, "rumors did say they grow pretty big."
"No shit." I replied.
He chuckled and walked up to the thing yanking out the sword I had seen, still lodged in its carapace. He handed it to me "Think you'll be needing this." he said.
"Why?" I asked my heart sinking "Aren't we leaving this place?"
He shook his head gesturing around him. “Had a lot of time to glance around while under that rock, the cliff faces are too tall and too bare there is nowhere to climb up from here.” he then walked up kicking the large corpse “But this guy had a sword stuck in him, which means he met somebody from the surface.”
“Probably ate them too.” I added.
Brutus paused and nodded “Aye. Probably. And it came from down there.” Brutus pointed to the dark side of the canyon where the Sand Walkers kept coming from “So there must be a connection to the surface somewhere in there.”
I sighed, whipping off the Sand Walker guts from my uniform, imagining if it had been white! “Well let's get going then.”
Brutus held up his hand ripping off a few chunks of meat from the Sand Walker corpse handing one to me, I looked at him wondering if he had lost his mind. He shrugged, “Need to eat and this stuff seems edible.” He took off his helmet and began chewing, although his eyes were saner than yesterday. I reached out and took it, my stomach grumbling after days without food, I hesitantly took a bite. The meat was extremely chewy but had a slight sweetness with a briney saltiness. I took more bites as my hunger began to awaken. It was difficult to chew but the taste was palatable.
We both finished eating and I wiped my hands on my uniform, looking around the canyon. It seemed to stretch out into eternity in all directions, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of dread as I contemplated what awaited us. Brutus must have noticed the look on my face, as he spoke up, "What, want to try climbing up the walls instead?" I shook my head remembering the horrific scene of falling down, "No," I replied firmly,
Brutus chuckled and ripped off one of the thin spiny legs of the crab at the joint handing it to me.
"A replacement for your cane." he said. I grabbed it feeling the rough carapace and tested my weight out on it. It was almost as tall as me so more a staff than a cane but it helped. He nodded seeing me lean against it and began walking towards the dark side, feet thumping with purpose. I began to hobble after him, the staff clinking against the stone.
“Shouldn’t we take some meat?” I said, glancing back at the large corpse.
Brutus waved his hand “No need, I’m fairly certain we'll run into more.”
Well, wasn’t that calming.