Chapter One

There is nothing left. 
Kemet is gone. Kemet is gone. How could we have allowed this to happen? 
Had we truly grown so complacent in ourselves that we believed we were invulnerable? 
We believed we had tamed a Dragon—(why, why did they not listen to you? Why did they not slay it?)
I sit here, my dearest Sekhmet, surrounded by the mirrors that reflect my failures.
What have we done? 
Kemet is gone.
There is nothing left.   

Private Communications Link. 
Utillian Time 14:19PM. 
Signal: Strong. 
Upload: Completed.
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Aaldryn dashed across the sand, the fine grains roasting his foot-paws despite them never touching the surface for longer than a moment. The wind sang a howling song in his ears as he raced Utillia’s wide skylines. In the distance the bow of the Lawless Child crashed down, cutting its way through the mighty sand-waves like a blade. The Sun, low behind the dunes, was a herald of the coming Twin Winter months. The cooling air from the higher dune shadows tangled between his legs, dulling the heat of the scorching sand. A school of juttfli cackled and jittered around him, their oxygen holes bursting with billows as they leapt sky-seaward in sparkling hues, only to vanish into the mysterious realm below. 
These precious moments of freedom were just for him and Khamsin. The wind-god who dwelt within him cherished the running of the burning-sea. In these few scarce hours they were one in mind, lost in the immensity of the horizon. 
It has been a good day. The wind-god stroked the filaments of his awareness. It was not so much a voice that he heard but a sensation of lingering like an old etching carved into stone, for Khamsin was as ancient as the Ovin-tu Mountains and always it felt as though he was a call echoing off distant cliffs.
“Indeed,” Aaldryn replied. “I hope we uncover something in that null-zone. Thanks be to the Rythrya, maybe we’ll finally get enough funds to upgrade the generators.” 
A horn hollered, spiking his pelt. Thick lines were flung over the edge of the Lawless Child, breaking the waves. Aaldryn breathed deeply through his air-gills. A thrill chilled his under-pelt as he watched the sand-ship spreading her outer wings. She was not an overly large vessel—a nyhot class, crewing only a hundred and fifty able-bodied burning-seafolk—but she did them proud and he adored her almost as much as he adored his mate. 
He dropped to all fours, increasing his speed. The wind surged around him, spurring his body forth with leaps and bounds until he latched onto a rope, clawing up the hull with strong hauls. With a flip, he twirled into the air and landed with an expert swagger on the decking. He caught the movement of the sand-ship as he stood upright on his hind-paws. His fan-tail unfurled, steadying his posture. 
The two upper-decks of the sand-ship were busy with scurrying crew members, obeying the orders of the queen, all paying him no heed despite his rank of chaplain. The vessel shuddered under his foot-paws as the Lawless Child took the brunt of a strong gravity swell, thrusting out from the null-zone beyond. 
They were vagabonds and orphans, cast-offs from the Ruling Prides, drawn to the Lawless Child for the same reasons—protection, shelter, food, work—a home, a pride. To the unobservant it was not so obvious, but to his eyes it was easy to see those who were unique like himself—the misfit-born, cursed with mutations caused by the rising radiation leaking free of the null-zones and the Zaprex technology beneath the burning-sea.
In many ways it was better to be dead than to be born a misfit. Whether Human, Kelib, Kattamont or half-breed, the shame was a cutting blade and life within the Ruling Prides was impossible.
Aaldryn curled his extra digits into the hooks of his dangling belts. The scars had long been hidden by his silver pelt, but he could still feel them pull from time to time, reminding him of his childish attempts to cut off what he had once considered an abomination.
Through the commotion a commanding voice called, “Prince Aaldryn, get your tail up here! Report!” Aaldryn caught sight of his mother aloft the stern deck: Zafiashid Silvertide, exiled queen of the Silvertide Pride. The glow of the Sun was raw behind her, casting a glinting halo around her glossy unkempt fur. She was dainty behind the heavy weight of the helm, the magnificent contraption of wheels and levers dwarfing her in size, and yet there was no doubting the queen’s prowess.
She might have been an exile of the burning-sea, cast aside like trash by the Silvertide Pride that ruled the Trading Routes between the Wind Cities and Isles, but her queenly strength was unwavering. Like raw silver, pure from the ground, she had been born to rule the strongest pride of Utillia, and that air of royalty had never left. It was something she had passed to him, in the way he sashayed up the stairs to the helm. She did not glance his way as he stationed himself directly beside her, but her flamboyant air-gills briefly flashed in greeting and, within, Khamsin berated him sharply for forgetting Kattamont customs.
Zafiashid cared not that she mingled with the low-life scoundrels of the outlaw trading posts, or the criminals and pirates that winged through the outer sectors. That, he knew, was true pride—that she had been outcast but had never lost what she had been born to be.
“Mother, I scouted ahead and the null-zone is over the next wave-bank. Nixlye was correct in her dreamings; there is a ruin inside.” 
Zafiashid spun the wheel, locking a lever in place with a foot-paw. Her tail balanced her weight as she guided herself around the controls. “Good, good. Does it look like anyone has discovered it already?”
“It looks unscavenged.”
“All the better; we shall be the first.” Her grin grew wild, bright azure eyes ravaging the horizon yonder in anticipation. She did so love the hunt. Aaldryn swished his fan-tail lazily, envious of the colours his mother’s had; it glinted like a precious opal, while his had the pristine blues of scarce water. Mother had never told him why she had been outcast, but he had gathered enough over the sol-cycles. It had been because she had birthed a misfit. It perhaps explained the intense drive he had inherited to search for and learn more of the Zaprexes, following in her unwavering paw-steps.
What truly lay beneath the burning-sea? Wonders untold—long uncharted cities, sunken and left to slumber. He had barely scratched the surface of their great towers in his countless dives. They called to him. He had to follow. It was because he was misfit-born, and all misfit-born shared in common the dream of the cities paved in gold. 
Mother knew he craved answers. That was why they had become archaeologists. It was a dangerous profession; they were labelled heretics by the Iposti—a formidable rival pride—for their beliefs that the Zaprexes were not invaders but saviours. He was not afraid of being branded a heretic, but what he truly despised was the dirt they had to put up with to fund their research. For the upkeep of the Lawless Child and food for the crew, they were forced to allow Scavengers to use the sand-ship and accompany them on exhibitions. 
It went against everything an archaeologist upheld to tolerate Scavengers pulling apart the wonders of a Zaprex ruin. He felt filthy just thinking about it.
“Must they come, Mother? This is truly a marvellous find and they will destroy it.”
Zafiashid’s brow lifted under the linkage of her air-gills. Aaldryn unfolded his arms, spreading them in protest. 
“And, yes, I detest the man.” He spat.
“It is simply your pride instinct. Resist it.”
“I want to stab him in the face whenever I see him.” 
Her laughter rang high into the Mist sails. “That is what you get for being born a pure-blooded prince.” 
“Mother!”
He had been born a prince, and the prince’s place in a pride was to protect. Queens and princesses lived for the hunt. Aaldryn stiffened as he caught the scent of the leader of the Scavengers. Zafiashid was smiling and he rolled his eyes, feeling his fur spike as the heavy footstep of the Human thumped up to the helm. There was no way he was going to duplicate his mother’s gesture of greeting towards Torka. The stinky Human could go throw himself overboard for all he cared.
“Greetings, Queen Zafiashid! I see we have been in luck and found some fair winds.”
Zafiashid cocked her head toward him and Aaldryn shrugged nonchalantly. He might have given Khamsin free range to push the Lawless Child along; it was not a bad thing to have a wind-god permanently residing within his mortal shell—he was personally going to take every advantage it brought. After all, he was the sand-ship’s chaplain; taming the wind was his role on the vessel—the Pride had just never seen fit to inform the Scavengers about Khamsin. To the vultures he was, quite simply, a very good wind-tamer and he did so enjoy how much it vexed them.
“Indeed, Torka, the Rythrya Stones have smiled upon us.” 
The Stones do not cause the winds. Your mother needs to remember who it is that truly rules these oceans. Khamsin stirred, bristling under his fur like hot-fire. Aaldryn snorted, insulted on behalf of Khamsin for being compared to the monuments scattered around Utillia.
“Mother, the Rythrya are guide stones, nothing more. They do not create the winds.” Aaldryn glanced over the tossing dunes in the distance. “The Simoon forge the winds.”  
“Ever the scholar, Aaldryn,” Torka said. “You fill your head with useless facts from a useless past.”
Torka’s bass laugh was heavily weighted with a gurgling of tobacco use. It was never a good thing for a Human to abuse their lungs in Utillia—the air was already too thin for a first-generation Human of Pennadotian birth.
“The past is not useless, Torka,” Aaldryn muttered. “It is from the past that the future shall be reborn.” He could not understand how anyone who dived deep into the burning-sea, down into the depths of the Zaprex wonders below, could not see that the rebirth of their world was beginning. Aaldryn unfolded himself from his perch, levelling the man with a glare. “Besides, it is my useless facts that bring you coinage to fill your useless pockets.” He had not encountered many Humans Torka’s age; most who sailed the burning-sea died before they had the chance to reach more than fifty sol-cycles. He was not entirely sure if Humans could get much older. Half-breeds he had encountered—they had many amongst the crew—but pure Humans usually remained in the Wind Cities and the Isles, preferring the life of mist-farming or trading. Torka, though, was beginning to go gray and he smelt of foul decay that was off-putting. His long hair was always bound back, and he often wore a broad smile as though life was pleasant. His skin had long since seen better days, wrinkled and blotched by the boiling Sun and the radiating burning-sea. Yet it was still the smirk that Aaldryn detested the most—so smug and self-satisfied, like he knew something no one else did, some grand secret he was content to let sit on his lips but never to tell.
“I think what the prince is trying to say, Torka, is that the ruin is un-scavenged. If you and your men will prepare for the dive, I will get close enough to drop you off.”
“This is good news Queen Zafiashid. My men have been holding out for a good bit of scavenging.”
“I hope this will be fulfilling for us all.” Zafiashid heaved on a lever and the vessel beneath them lurched forward. Aaldryn steadied himself as a side-wing caught an up-gust of gravity and he seized a nearby handle, throwing his full weight upon it. 
He bellowed over the deck, “Tie down that wing! Why is it still open? Someone tie that cursed thing down. We’re closing on a null-zone. The gravity is destabilizing. I want the wings buckled down.”
Zafiashid laughed and he shot her a glare, fluffing the fur of his chest in frustration. “I would be grateful, Mother, if you took better care of the sand-ship I will inherit when you cross the Osiris Gate.”
“You will not inherit it, my prince. Your queen will.”
“It will still be my sand-ship.”
Torka cracked a laugh. “Maybe we might find your queen some legs this time, heh, boy. Some records did say those Zaprexes could rebuild limbs better than our Kattamont mechanics.”
Aaldryn quenched Khamsin’s internal raging tornado. The indecency of the Human man was beyond insulting. It was enough to justify cleaving his head from his shoulders and putting it on a stake. Had this been any other Pride, he would have.
“I will prepare myself for the dive, Mother.” Aaldryn turned sharply, his fan-tail coiled irritably. Maybe if he had wind-blessed luck, Torka would take a bad fall this scavenger hunt and never come back up. After all, the burning-sea took no prisoners. He heard his mother’s laughter as he stomped away. It was troubling, though; he was not entirely sure if he was happier to be away from Torka or his mother.
Neither his mate nor his blood-brother were in their cabin, their usual hiding place from the crew of the Pride. Aaldryn breathed in their lingering scents. It calmed his nerves. Collecting his assortment of archaeological and dive equipment from a locked chest he donned the hand-crafted belts and foot-paw pads and snatched up the face-mask. It was a ghastly thing, made all the more uncomfortable by the tubes that attached to his air-gills, but the presence of toxins could be possible in any ancient Zaprex ruin, and that could not be taken lightly, even by a Kattamont. He had seen Humans melt when exposed to spores and gases below the surface of the burning-sea. 
He headed topside. Zafiashid’s voice was shrill over the groaning of the Lawless Child and the bustling of the crew as they anchored the sand-ship on the edge of a high dune wave. Khamsin’s spirit soared through him and Aaldryn breathed out deeply, sensing the delight of the wind-god as its tentacles danced around the metal of something beyond his sight. They had found it—something old, and yet it felt impossibly new and undamaged by the passage of time and the burning-sea.
Aaldryn sighted Nixlye on the deck leaning over the railing. Her tail poked through a hole in her wheelchair, flapping in a clear display of joy. He smiled. For a half-breed, his mate leant more toward a Kattamont nature, and for that he was eternally grateful. Her Humanness was in her peculiar hands and her cute little nose. She had none of the magnificent Kattamont air-gills but had at least inherited a tail and fur. She was already a queen, though she pretended otherwise for the sake of their Pride unity and his mother’s sanity—though neither queen would admit it to the other.
At the death of a queen, such as his Pride mother, the waiting neutral princess would mature and take her place, inheriting the Pride, including the princes and neutrals under her rule. His mother was not dead; she was an outcast, staying alive by her sheer desire to win back the honour she had lost. Nixlye was not a neutral princess, but, out of deference to his mother, she kept the façade as his mother’s princess. He was sure this was only possible because his mate was half-Human and their Pride was one of misfits. It was the part of her that was Human that did not mind being a second queen to his mother. 
After all, in truth, it was his mother who suffered—she had no princes, no one to care for her; she was alone—like a rythrya stone amongst the sand dune waves, weathering the storms of the burning-sea’s rage. 
Nixlye was the true queen; the shadow queen his blood-brother would often say.
With stubby ears twitching, she caught his stare. The glow of her rosy fur brightened at his admiring gaze. 
“Ryn!” 
He smiled at her shortened version of his name. It bothered his mother, which was perhaps the reason both his blood-brother and his mate used it so often. 
“Oh, Ryn, isn’t it beautiful! I wish I could go with you.” 
His chest ached as she rolled the wheels of her chair around. Under the patchwork blanket of her own making, he knew her legs lay limp. Only he and his blood-brother had the privilege of seeing her uncovered. His mate was strong, not only in spirit, but also in body. Her life was one of tribulation. He had been childish, thinking his little extra digits were a blight on his life. Nixlye had still been in the womb-sack of a female, and, due to the mutation of her bones, her legs had never developed correctly. It pained him to think that were it not for the softened heart of one Iposti she would not be alive to love him. 
He hooked his extra digits into his belts and levitated over the deck, landing beside her in a swell of wind.
“If the Human oafs were not coming I would take you, love.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of Torka; he is a nice man. Besides, I am half-Human, so you should be kinder to my people.” Nixlye fluffed her chest fur, settling back in her chair.
Aaldryn rolled his eyes. Nixlye’s insistence on acknowledging her Human side extended to wearing Human clothing, which was bothersome to get off her at night, and it ruined her adorable rosy pelt. Why keep fur as luxuriant as his mother’s under that much fabric? He did not see the point. Kattamont fur was supposed to be without restriction; otherwise it did not absorb sunlight or starlight—but, no, Nixlye refused to listen to his nattering on the subject.
“You’re judging me; I can feel it.” She eyed him.
“I’m undressing you in my head,” he sniped back.
Her tail thumped him, causing him to stagger forward, more in surprise than at the force of her strike. He caught her cocky grin and the shine of her mottled blue eyes.
“Find me something, Ryn. Bring me back a gift.” 
She so loved the beautiful wonders they uncovered, the artefacts of centuries past that her fingers could touch and her mind process. He promised himself he would find something for her to cherish, just to see her happiness. 
The wheels of her chair grated over the deck and her hands grasped the surface of the railing. Nixlye stared wistfully over the horizon. “Be safe, too,” she murmured.
“I will, I promise.” The adventure of discovery was thrilling, but it was still dangerous. Even with all the caverns of secret wonders, the possibility of finding clues as to why Utillia existed as a land of scorching irrational sand, there always remained the danger he might not return from below. He had been raised a warrior-scribe, and he would always seek the answers, despite the risks.
Aaldryn fluttered a soft breath of wind across Nixlye cheek, causing her to laugh as she tucked her hair behind a perky ear.
“I can feel it, Ryn.” She tipped her head toward him. “I don’t know what it is, but I know we’re getting closer to the source of our dreams. We’ll figure it out—what happened to us.” 
She was speaking about his extra digits, his mutation, and how she even existed at all—half-breeds—they should have been impossible.
He did not know which was sadder: the fact that his mate believed unswervingly in the Zaprexes or that, no matter how much they searched, they never came any closer to that which all misfits dreamed of—the cities of gold.
Aaldryn bent and nuzzled her cheek. “I trust our dreams. They have carried us this far.”
“As do I.” 
Aaldryn straightened at Zafiashid’s low voice. He stepped aside from Nixlye sharply, bowing to the queen.
“There is an island nearby; we shall dock there and await your return. It is far too dangerous to keep the Lawless this close to a null-zone; we could destabilize the gravity and collapse the area onto you while you dive.” Zafiashid approached, brushing a paw through Nixlye’s hair tenderly. Aaldryn curled his foot-claws against the wooden planking.
“Yes, Mother.” 
“Then you have your orders, prince. Come back alive.”
“Always.” He sent a swell of wind toward Nixlye to caress her cheek as he turned and skipped over the edge of the sand-ship into the burning-sea below. 

 

One of Aaldryn’s great pleasures in life was annoying Torka with his ability to walk on the burning-sea without sinking. Only skilled Iposti chaplains could do this, and the fact that he, a young prince, flaunted it, irked the Human scavenger to no end. He could tell from the twitching of Torka’s eyebrow and the way his lips curved into thin lines. The man loathed him, and the feeling was well returned in kind.
The surging pulses of the destabilizing gravity of the null-zone made his fur spike. He would never get used to the sheer power that Zaprex technology radiated, nor come to understand how and why pockets of emptiness would open up within the burning-sea and leave vast sectors unstable. Some burning-seafolk called them holes, but they were not holes in the term of a visible gap one could swing a rope into and drop down into the dark depths. It was an area of no sand, no burning-sea, just nothing—appearing suddenly and without warning in a sector. They could be big or small. If they occurred when a sand-ship was nearby, or right beneath a sand-ship...well, he had seen it happen from a distance and it was never pretty.
Somewhere in the pocket of nothing lay a Zaprex machine, a wonder of extraordinary history just waiting for him. Waiting for him to discover why the null-zone existed and why Utillia had become a land of moving sand, why misfit-children were born, and why the world they lived upon was crumbling, piece by piece.
“What do you think we’ll find down there, cub?”
He glanced at Torka as the man strapped his booster pack to his hips. While he did detest the Human, he had to grudgingly admire him for being the best in the scavenging business. 
Aaldryn fitted his mask, attaching the tubes to his air-gills.
“The null-zone is small, so I suspect it won’t be a city entrance.”
Torka nodded. “Good, good. Last time we got a city entrance I lost three men.”
Aaldryn shuddered. Ah. Yes. That had not been a good hunt. The crystal-spores from the Zaprex corpses had been particularly lethal, and they had gone down so far, and so deep, he had almost expected to never resurface.
He had been glad Torka had been unable to scavenge the Zaprex remains due to the spores. Desecrating the fairy-kin’s castles felt disrespectful enough, let alone taking the hollow bodies for spare parts. 
“It is unlikely that will happen this time, Torka.” Aaldryn shook his head. “But I do suggest caution. I suspect we will encounter some crystals, so full protective gear if any of you want to father children.”
“You heard the cub!” Torka shouted to his men, “Don’t mess up your suits this time!”
“Why doesn’t he wear one?” 
Aaldryn glanced back at the questioner, giving the new-comer a smile as he stepped over the edge of the null-zone.
“I’m already tainted. Misfit-born, remember.”
“It’s why he’s here, numbskull. He can sense the shiny-crystals and warn you not to step your foot in it.” Torka whacked the young man over the head and Aaldryn smiled as he released Khamsin, beginning his dive. It was disorientating, as he knew he was going downward, but there was no reference point for the slow movement when all around him was entirely nothing. When he had first begun his expeditions into null-zones he had thought his eyes were playing tricks, catching signs of life, trickles of sand, and whiffs of light. He had tried to reach out and catch the strange fragments only for them to break up and disintegrate in his paws. Khamsin called it corrupted information and now whenever he took the plunge into the odd world of nothing he knew that surrounding him was not mere darkness but a lack of anything at all. It made him feel very alone, very empty, and even more frightened of the world he lived in. The burn of the scavenger crew’s booster-packs glittered, and he watched them pan out, creating a formation. Torka swirled around him; finally the man was in his element. Aaldryn eyed the booster-pack, wondering how easy it would be to accidently kick Torka hard enough for the booster-pack to grow unstable—
Aaldryn, I have promised to protect all the lives upon the Lawless Child, and that includes Torka. If you desire to fight him, you will have to do it as a Kattamont prince with a grudge, then mayhap I will aid you with throwing him overboard. Currently, the man has done nothing to slight you but ruffle your kitten feathers.
Aaldryn winced at Khamsin’s berating.
“You are no fun,” he muttered.
Faint light appeared below them. Aaldryn glanced up, shaking his head at the sight of the small sliver of daylight some distance above. Despite how long he felt the dive was, they had not truly travelled far. On his deepest dive he had reached the sixth level, which, despite the great depth, only gained them access to the very tops of the ancient Zaprex cityscape, and that alone had taken days to achieve. They had barely broken the surface during this dive. He looked at Torka. Honestly, he should get along with the Human he spent so much time diving with. 
Torka manoeuvred his booster-pack controls, swinging towards him, his cheeks flushed rosy against the burn of the pack. “Any idea what it is, cub?”
Aaldryn squinted. This close he could finally make out the shape of the old Zaprex monument. His chest inflated sharply with surprise. This was a spectacular find. If only his mate and blood-brother were with him. He could imagine their delight.
“A flying machine.” He barely managed the words.
Torka clapped his hands. “Oh, oh!” The scavenger whirled back around to his men. “Lads! We got ourselves the catch of the sol-cycle.”
It must have crashed here. Khamsin nudged his mind. It is strange.
Aaldryn frowned. Yes, it was strange—the way the eerie shape was suspended in the nothing, globs of sand surrounding it. Crystals were scattered, as though they had been shattered when the null-zone had been created. Others protruded through the hull of the ancient vessel in such a painful manner it made him cringe. He could only liken it to a pin-cushion from his blood-brother's healing kit. The crystals’ glow was an allure though, drawing him closer as a moth to a flame. 
There is something inside. Something different. Something…new…
“What?” Aaldryn raised his brow. “Really?” His tail flicked. New was good.
Khamsin’s wind rippled over his fur. Sometimes, young one, it is not always good. The wind is the element of change, and not all change is good change.
“Tah.” Aaldryn waved aside the wind-god’s concern. “We will bring Nixlye back a grand treasure.”

 

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