“What have you come here for, wanderer?” The dark one was terrible and tall, its face covered in black feathers. It spoke to me through a throat-medal of gold, copper, and rose quartz. On either side of the creature, giants with elongated heads and rows of teeth above scaled humanoid bodies blocked my passage into the Ytolan pyramid.
I had walked this far, almost two miles from the nearest town. The remainder of my party had stayed behind with our vehicles, as according to our agreement. “The Temple of Ytolan holds the third of seven herbs. All who seek the eternal draught come here to claim it. And I have brought the price of such medicine with me.” The price was waiting nearby, in the hills beyond the Temple.
The bird-creature placed a square mandala of silver interlaced with crystal around my neck, wrapped both of my hands around its frame. It spoke in a deep monotone voice: “You will approach Ikkul with the pendant of truth over your heart.” It gestured to the larger of the giants, who was twice my height and solid as a mountain. I forced myself to remain calm.
I did as I was asked, walking to within ten feet of the giant to my right. Ikkul’s breath was a stinking ruin, its head plated with scales and scabbed with scars. The pendant hummed, and I felt an electrical current pass through the metal to sting the flesh over my heart. I almost dropped the instrument, but some greater power steadied me. I said a silent prayer to the war god, Seth, who blesses the marsh-lands.
Ikkul lowered its weapon, for which I know no name. The honed striking edge scratched a line in the dirt between the giant creature and me. As the polished metal ball which hung between the weapon’s two blades rose to my throat, the mandala glowed red. A pain seized me, and my legs buckled. The weapon withdrew as I fell, and Ikkul looked to the bird-creature.
“You have been examined.” The black-feathered face appeared before me. Strong arms lifted me off my knees. I teetered for a moment, leaning against the soft robe of the bird-creature. “Your intentions are indeed dishonest. You are no true scholar.” This time, the sting over my heart was blood, was terror. I dropped the mandala and blurted the words that entered my mind, the only salve for my pain.
“I confess,” I told the bird creature, “we intended to rob you. Even now the assassins wait in the hills beyond, with ten machines which kill from a distance.” Its head wobbled, and the beak dipped. Behind me, I felt a gust of wind.
Then, I knew no more. My last vision was the bloody stump of a neck, gushing blood into lifeless desert dirt. Uncomprehending, I tried to laugh, but could not move my throat. As I died, an inaudible note rung, reminding me of a place long forgotten.