Excerpt from Dweller in the Crack

“So,” demanded Karaghr, gazing around the unbroken jungle, “where exactly is this city?”

Failiu raised her eyebrows at him, jerking her head suggestively at their guide. Her face looked torn between anger and tears, and he reached out a comforting hand to her. She’d been looking forward to reaching the city of Jayen and its comforts even more than he had.

Da-Zheng, the guide who’d brought them all the way up the river, stood staring around. Had the man brought them to the middle of nowhere deliberately, for

some nefarious purpose? It seemed unlikely, from what Kari had seen during the journey of the stolid, reliable man, but he put his hand on his knife-hilt, just in case.

“I don’t understand it.” Da-Zheng turned to them, his pale face even more blanched than usual. “This is the place. Jayen should be here.”

“But it’s not, is it?” snapped Fai. “You’ve brought us the wrong way.”

“No.” The Thaal guide shook his head, his eyes stunned. “It’s all as it should be. The bend in the river. The ridge we crossed two hours back. Anyway, we followed the road.”

That was true. The paved road was clear enough that Kari had wondered occasionally why they needed a guide, although Da-Zheng had been valuable in steering them through the customs of remote villages.

“Could it be a different road?” he suggested. There must be a simple explanation.

“I know the road to Jayen. There isn’t a route in these parts I don’t know.” From anyone else, the retort might have been angry, but Da-Zheng seemed to have no temper to lose. He made a broad gesture to indicate trees, undergrowth, the riverbank a few hundred paces away, the three of them standing in the steamy heat still rising from the last downpour. From a distance came an animal cry that Kari didn’t recognise. “Here,” the guide insisted in his slow voice. “This should be the south gate.”

Kari pulled Fai closer to himself, taking comfort by giving it. “So what are you saying? That an entire city has vanished, and the ground taken back by the jungle since you were last here? Just how long ago was that?”

“Last summer.” Da-Zheng was wandering around the immediate vicinity now, as if the buildings might be hidden behind one of the trees. “It was a thriving city last summer, and I’ve heard no news of disaster. In any case, what about that merchant? He’d been in Jayen, hadn’t he?”

That was true, and Kari cursed himself silently for forgetting it. The merchant they’d passed on the road five days ago was effusive about the prices he’d got for his goods in the city’s many markets and the rare commodities from the north that would make him even more when he returned to the coast.

That was Jayen’s importance, as a meeting-point for the road and river trade that came from both north and south of the great forests dividing the Thaal kingdoms in half. In spite of its remoteness, trade made it a rich and luxurious city, everyone said.

Fai trembled, and she was as pale as her dusky Errishi complexion would allow, but she let Kari help her shuck her pack before collapsing to sit on it. He joined her, holding her hand. A speckled snake, longer than he was tall, slithered along a branch high above, but took no notice. It was of a type Da-Zheng said wouldn’t attack humans unless it felt threatened.

It had seemed such a good idea to go on a trek through the jungle to find the city of Jayen. The Lost City, Failiu insisted on calling it, though it was nothing of the kind, and the trek was a stroll along a good road. Still, finding lost cities was what you did when you were teenage outlaw sorcerers, and that’s what they’d been since they were kicked out of the temple in Errish for studying forbidden volumes. It was an adventure.

Da-Zheng still wandered about, looking stunned. “It doesn’t make sense,” he muttered.

“All right.” Kari felt he should be positive for Fai’s sake. “Could you be mistaken? I mean, the jungle’s confusing. I know you know it, and there’s the road, but is it possible… I don’t know, there’s another bend in the river and another ridge just like the ones you know? Or… something?”

The guide looked at them blankly. He was an emotionless, middle-aged man who hadn’t seemed flustered by anything that had happened on the journey—not even when his young charges had wandered away for an exuberant lovemaking session and got lost—which made his attitude now more frightening.

“No. No, there’s no chance I’m wrong. This is where Jayen should be.”