Transcript – The Old City
[The Pensive Tower theme plays]
Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Eleven: The Old City
[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]
This is the memory of Baalasz Alen’Atir. Diman, aged twenty three, identified as male. Memory regards his discovery of some forgotten ruins in the city of Szairo, and was donated on the twenty-seventh of Kalla, in the year 727. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the eighteenth of Baretree, 729.
People ask me, sometimes, if it was hard coming out to my parents. I always tell them the same thing. I haven’t seen my parents since I was five.
Their reactions to that are always funny. Obviously, it depends who I’m talking to; a human will generally start with shock and then go for sympathy while a taurox will be absolutely horrified. Koorlank Thraknuin, my orklin friend, once offered to track down my parents and pulverize them for me.
It’s strange how little the other peoples seem to know about us. We’ve been around just as long as everyone else yet no-one has seemed to catch on yet that we mature a lot faster than other children and dimans are solitary by nature. As soon as we’re mature, our parents pretty much see their job as done and we’re encouraged to go and make it on our own.
Obviously, if I were to bump into my parents, I’d be happy to see them, but in the same way I’d be happy to see a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while. Dimans don’t have that bond that the other peoples apparently have with their parents.
So, in short, when I reached the age of fifteen and I realised that I was not, in fact, a girl named Szuanna, my parents and what their reactions might be did not even enter my thoughts.
I was living in Hy-Braelyn by then, working as a civil servant in the FBPP. Sorry, that’s the Federal Bureau of Public Protection. I’m afraid the name makes it sound a lot more impressive than what we actually do. I won’t bore you with the details, we basically just process legal paperwork for people that, for one reason or another, are incapable of doing it for themselves.
I did face some difficulties at my workplace when I came out. It’s nothing that I want to get into but suffice to say it was enough that I needed some time away.
I must have been asked the coming out question around that time because I think the thought of my parents was at the back of my mind. I took it into my head that I had to head back to Vivvok, maybe try and connect with my roots a bit better. Truthfully, I hadn’t been back to the country since I’d left home.
I was only planning on going there to sight see, maybe doing the tour of the stone cities, but I was talking with Koorlank and he convinced me to look up my parents.
I argued at first, I think more out of stubbornness than anything else; as I said I’ve got nothing against my parents. Maybe I just didn’t want Koorlank to think he’d won. But, in the end, I agreed. I’d go to Durzsiban and either look them up, or see if I could track down where they’d moved to.
Of course, that meant taking a very, very long train journey. Durzsiban is way down south, almost to the coast of the Sand Sea. It was likely going to be a full day’s trip.
I’m not really a fan of confined spaces at the best of times, so the idea of spending a full day in a box almost made me call off the whole thing.
Koorlank and a couple of other friends offered to go with me, make it more of a friendly road trip and at least I’d have someone to talk to. I was tempted but, in the end, I told them no, I’d go by myself. It felt too personal to have people along with me, at least for that first time. If I liked it, I told them, I may well make it an annual thing and the next time I went, I’d be happy to have them along with me.
That first time, though, I was adamant. I was going by myself.
So, I woke up early, went to the station, bought my ticket, got on the train and, just like that, we were away.
It wasn’t quite as bad as I’d been dreading. I mean, being cooped up in there for hours on end wasn’t ideal but it could have been worse. There weren’t too many other people in my car so it didn’t get too stifling and, by midday, the temperature had risen to a very agreeable heat so I was able to kind of curl up on my seat and bask while the hours slipped away.
I could tell others in my car had differing opinions. The humans in particular were getting very bothered by the heat. They tried opening windows but that only really served to blow all the hot air around.
When we finally stopped in Haranford, a lot of people got off. I don’t know if that was where they’d first intended to go or if they were just trying to escape the heat. It must be hard being warm blooded in the summer I suppose.
I think I was the only one in my car by the time I roused myself from the lazy reverie I’d been dozing in for the past few hours. I hadn’t brought a watch with me so I wasn’t sure on the time but, judging from the sun, I think it was getting onto late afternoon. The car was a lot cooler than it had been earlier, a bit too cool for my liking but nothing I wasn’t used to from living up north.
The conductor came through then to tell us we’d soon be making the second of the two scheduled re-fuelling stops.
The first had been in a place called Apenton. That had been just before midday, right as the heat had been climbing and I’d been going into my doze. I don’t think I even remember arriving there so I’m guessing I just stayed on the train the whole time, enjoying the heat.
That second time though, I decided it’d be a good idea to get up, have a walk around and stretch my legs.
The place we were stopping, according to the conductor, was a place called Szairo, a decent sized city that was almost right on the border with Vivvok.
As I stepped off the train, coughing my way through the billowing smoke and steam, I looked out on a very different landscape to what I was used to.
I remembered Vivvok being dry and dusty but I don’t think I was prepared for just how… empty it would be, even just at the border. I don’t know if you’ve even been to Hy-Braelyn, I don’t think it’s that far away from here, but the surrounding countryside is full of little valleys and woodlands. It’s so easy to just go for a walk out in the country and come across somewhere you hadn’t seen before.
Here there was just… nothing. I could see for miles in every direction, just a flat expanse of dusty scrubland, broken up by the occasional copse of sand pines.
The conductor said that the refuelling would likely take about an hour so we should make sure to be back at the platform within that time or else we’d be left behind.
I turned my back on the dusty expanse and made my way through the station and out into Szairo.
It was… not what I’d been expecting. Which is ridiculous because, honestly, I hadn’t really been expecting anything. I had the vaguest memories of my birth country. I remember it being hot and crowded, and the food being very different to what I’d gotten used to living in Hy-Braelyn.
I guess I’d expected Szairo to be… exotic. Strange and yet familiar, a place that would give me a taste of my homeland and maybe reawaken something I’d forgotten that would make me feel an urge to return to Durzsiban.
Duncain, he’s another friend of mine, Duncain Grey, he told me that he always loves going to visit his sister’s family here in Elalton because it always feels a little like coming home, returning to your place of safety.
I think maybe I was hoping to feel something like that.
But, if that was the case, I was disappointed. Szairo was much like anywhere else I’d ever visited; the only difference was the climate was hotter and dryer. There were a few more dimans walking around than I was used to seeing, which was nice, but other than that, it was just ordinary.
I didn’t realise why I felt let down at the time. I think I just felt a little underwhelmed by the place.
Still, I told myself it would only be for an hour and then we’d be on our way again. So, I decided to go for a wander around the market. There was, at least, some things here that you would not find in Hy-Braelyn. The vendors served kofta and falafel in floury flatbreads. The smell of southern spices was thick in the air around that part of the town. Still not enough to give me any kind of yearning, but enough to make me smile.
I bought some kofta and continued wandering the streets, munching happily enough on the street food as I went. It was a very nice flavour; I think I ate something similar with my mother the last night I lived with her.
I was also careful to keep an eye on the time. There were plenty of clocktowers in the city so I was able to keep track. I had been wandering about twenty minutes by this time so I thought I’d carry on another ten and then turn back and retrace my steps to the train station.
I was walking alongside this high wall that I think had been built pre-Unification. I thought it was just there to separate the districts but at a break in the wall, I saw a sign pointing through to the other side that just read “Old City.”
I guessed that this was some ancient district of Szairo, no longer used or lived in but left as some sort of heritage site. That is until I peeked through and saw a stone path that was all overgrown.
So, maybe it was an old part of the city but it had been abandoned?
I was kind of intrigued by this, particularly by how much plant life there was overgrowing the path. There was some greenery around Szairo but it was mostly scrubgrass or else the tall sand pines which I’d seen dotting the surrounding landscape which, in the town, lined the streets. But this path looked like a garden which had never been tended and had been left to grow wild.
Thick, tangled brambles hung heavy from gnarled, dead looking branches. Wild flowers burst from swollen vines. There was so much that the way the path led was completely obscured.
I glanced around, to see if anyone nearby could tell me anything about this but everyone I saw acted as if they couldn’t even see the path. No, more than that. It was like they were all pretending that it didn’t exist. Every person I saw walking past had this fixed expression on their face, looking dead ahead. It was so unnatural; I could tell they were averting their eyes from where I stood.
I considered just heading back then and there. I’d be back at the station early and this path might be trouble. But something about it pulled me in. I couldn’t help myself. I just had to know what was through there.
I don’t know why I was so interested. I’ve never been particularly enthused by history and the thick overgrowth of the path meant it was going to be difficult to get through. A lot more difficult than seeing some mouldy old ruins would be worth. Especially since they would likely be little more than piles of rocks by now, if the state of the path was anything to go by.
But I… I had to go. There was something at the other end of that path and I needed to see it.
I put one foot down on the path. I half expected someone to stop me. With the way everyone was averting their eyes from it I thought it might be some sort of forbidden zone. But no, everyone just kept walking by, ignoring the paths and, by extension, my existence.
Satisfied that I wasn’t going to be stopped, I pushed my way in.
It probably would have been harder for a human to get through. The vines were covered in thorns and the hanging brambles probably would have torn a soft-skin to pieces.
Fortunately, though diman scales are hardly impervious, they do leave us better protected from mild scratches than others. That’s not to say I didn’t get a nasty cut or two as I pushed through the overgrowth but I was able to make it through the worst of it and out the other side. The path was still overgrown but the trees and the vines and brambles which clung to them did not extend more than a few yards past the gap in the wall. So, I was able to get a good look at the Old City.
There was more of it than I had expected. More than there should have been. It stretched out around me almost as large as the Szairo I had left behind me. But the thing was, it looked so different. With most cities you can see the gradual development of its architecture. Buildings are designed to stay up for a long time, after all, so if you’re looking you can see how the style develops through the centuries, going back as far as the Dark Age. Even if two neighbouring buildings look, on the surface, entirely different from each other, you can usually find at least a few things that link the two of them.
These buildings I was looking at now were entirely different to the ones I had seen in Szairo. They had been wide, sprawling buildings with wide, beautifully decorated arches and square and squat towers.
There were towers here in this Old City, but they were much taller and narrower, and topped with wide platforms, wide enough to support small houses. I squinted up at the nearest platform I could see, and saw two small bollards at its edge, perhaps there to support a bridge that no longer existed.
I began walking through this strange place. The stone roadway was cracked with weeds growing thick through it. The wall I had come through ran around the outside of this old city, though it was not as well maintained as the one that encircled Szairo. It was crumbling, though never to the point that I could see through it to the landscape outside. Whoever had built this place had clearly wanted it to last.
I wondered who they had been. This place was clearly older than the Federation. This close to the Homeland, was I looking at some ancient diman style of building?
The platform topped towers made up most of what I saw at first, though they were interspersed with wide, circular buildings. I looked inside one of them. It was in ruins, like everything else, but I was pretty certain that it had never had a roof, or any interior walls. I wondered if this was some kind of meeting place.
I kept on going. I should have gone back. I knew I was going to miss my train unless I ran the whole way back. But something told me I hadn’t found all there was to see in this place yet and, for some reason, I was determined to find out what that was. At least, I wanted to find out who had lived here and what had happened to them and something told me I wasn’t likely to get any answers from the people pretending the place didn’t exist.
I eventually came upon another of those circular buildings but it was bigger than the ones I had seen already. It sat in the middle of this wide-open plaza. I could see raised areas at each corner. Maybe this was a town hall, I thought, or some church to a forgotten religion?
Curious, I went at first to investigate but as I got closer, I saw that this building, whatever it was, was in a terrible state, worse than anything else I’d seen up to that point. The walls looked like they were barely holding together and I knew going inside would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.
I’d seen enough, I decided. If I hurried, I could still make it back in time to get my train. I turned to go. And that’s when I heard it.
It was… a whispering. Like the wind but it was definitely words. Words in a language I didn’t know. I definitely didn’t know it but somehow… I knew what they meant. It was… beckoning me towards the building. There was something I had to see. Something it wanted me to see.
I knew it was a bad idea. I must not have been in my right mind. On any other day I would have run, possibly screaming from that place. But on that day, in that moment, I wanted to see just what it was that this voice wanted to show me. I walked towards the building.
At first, I thought it was just as I had thought it was. Just a larger version of the other circular buildings I had seen. But, as my eyes adjusted to the dimness inside, I saw that wasn’t the case.
The walls of the other building had been bare white rock. Inside here, the walls were decorated with stone reliefs. Four of them in total.
I think at one point they must have been beautifully detailed, but age had worn all that detail away so that now only the basic images were visible. And then only just. There were a few details that were still visible, blades of grass or writing or tools, enough to show that a lot of time and effort had been put into creating these works, which made it all the sadder, I suppose, that all of it was gone now.
One thing was consistently missing. The people depicted in the reliefs had no features. I know that might just be a result of the wearing of age. Facial features are probably quite delicate in stone so they get worn away easily, but I’m sure if it had just been natural wear and tear there would have been something left. Hair, ears, the occasional remnant of an eye or mouth. But it was as if someone had gone around to each relief and painstakingly erased every face.
I spent a long while looking at those reliefs, I think they were meant to show the different aspects of life of the people who’d used to live here. The first one I looked at had a lot of what looked like wheat fields, ploughs being pulled by oxen and small rivers running between fields, that sort of thing. All the people were carrying scythes and long handled forks.
In the next one, there was a lot of kneeling people around a mountain. Like in all the other reliefs, none of the kneeling people had any distinct features. On the mountain, however, stood twelve people with what I think was supposed to be light shining around them. And their features were all completely clear. They looked human, except for the fact they each had the head of a different animal. A cow, a rat, a pig, a dog, a monkey, all the animals that you might associate with the twelve peoples. My eye was drawn to one that had the head of a snake. It looked more like someone had taken the head of a cobra and stuck it onto a human neck. If this was supposed to be a diman, it had been carved by someone who’d only ever heard the vaguest description of what we look like.
The third was a battle scene, lots of chariots and people with long spears and bows and arrows. It didn’t show who they were meant to be fighting but at the centre was one of those featureless people holding up a weird looking sword, as if in triumph.
The fourth was taken up almost entirely by a mountain, but I think it was a different mountain to the one in the second picture. This one, I don’t know how to put this, it looked like it had been done in more of a hurry. The lines were rougher than on the other three. In the middle of the mountain, someone had gouged out some shapes, I think they were meant to be letters but I have no idea what language they were supposed to be.
For some reason, that image really got to me. The sight of it terrified me and I know that’s really bizarre, it was just a picture of a mountain.
I left that building, running back the way I had come.
It didn’t notice the hole until it was too late and I plunged right into it. Fortunately, it wasn’t that deep but it was deep enough that I scraped my arm quite badly. Diman scales aren’t immune to everything.
But when I looked up, I stopped noticing the pain.
There was… this is where it gets really strange, there was a statue… but it wasn’t a statue. It was stone but I could tell from looking at it that it had once been a person. The way it stood there, hands raised in abject terror… no sculptor is good enough to capture that, make it look that real.
And it wasn’t alone. Behind it, I could see others. Dozens, scores of them. All different sizes, some tall, some shorter, some that were clearly children, all frozen in stone. Some were huddling down on the ground, some looked like they were trying to run, others had their arms raised as if to fight or protect themselves.
But the worst part was their faces. All of them were the same empty, blank, featureless faces I had seen in the reliefs. But I knew, if they had had faces, every one of them would be screaming.
I turned and I ran.
Back along the streets I went, towards the gap in the wall. On the way, I saw more of those statues that I was sure weren’t statues, all with the same blank faces, their bodies filled with terror.
Still more of them lined the wall, around the gap through which I had come. I don’t know how I didn’t notice them before.
They looked like they were reaching out to me. Trying to grab me. I barrelled my way into the gap. Scale-skin or not, I was scratched up pretty good but I made it to the other side.
I ran back in the direction of the train station. People were looking at me now, expressions ranged from confused to horrified at the sight of my torn clothes and scratched up face. Quite a few of them called after me, asking if I was alright, if I needed help.
I didn’t stop until I was back at the station.
I’d obviously missed my train, by quite a long time. That didn’t matter. I had no interest in staying in that part of the world any longer than I had to. I booked the next ticket back north I could get. I spent the rest of my time off with Koorlank, visiting his family, which was nice.
I haven’t been south again since. Until now, obviously.
Final Notes. Szelia was very interested in this memory when I told her about it. She was born and raised in Szairo and was surprised to hear about the existence of an Old City. And she should be surprised since it doesn’t exist.
I know this because, curious myself, I went down to the public library and found a guide to the towns and cities of the Federation. Szairo was built during the Seventy Year War, originally as a fort to watch the border between Senteria and Vivvok but after Unification the settlement branched out into residential areas, eventually becoming a city. There were no pre-existing ruins or settlements there when it was first constructed.
I did try following up with Mr. Alen’Atir about this fact but I received a rather irate response from his now-husband Koorlank saying that they both stand by the memory that was donated and don’t wish to hear anything more about it.
To my knowledge, there have been no other sightings in Szairo that match Mr. Alen’Atir’s account.
[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]
[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]