A note from AJ Fluff

Content warnings (for the entire story): blood; combat; monsters/skeletons/corpses/giant spiders; mentions of child death; beware scotophobics, lots of darkness

I'll add to the list as we progress.

1.1 - Goodbye

Don’t think about it, Rin warned himself as the structure loomed above him. He busied his fidgeting fingers in the folds of his sash, cinching it tighter to avoid raising his gaze for a little longer. Just…don’t think about it.

A humid breeze tugged at his dark brown curls. He breathed in the tang of the incoming storm and tried once more to shove all those pesky thoughts down deep. He’d been attempting just that since he woke up this morning. Since his father’s cracked whisper of “Happy birthday.” Since the entire family had left home and boarded the train. Since the Hifumegu Station, where they’d rented a wagon for the last leg of the journey.

But especially since they had finally arrived.

Did Aapo feel like this? Tense and restless. Smothering uncertainty. The thought was jarring. Aapo had been bigger, smarter, older.

The underlying fear flitted across Rin’s mind: Will I end up like him?

Rin grabbed the thought and wrestled it back into the mental box housing all the other thoughts that had to do with Aapo. Five years had crammed it full, such that he struggled to clamp it shut again.

A gust of wind rose up, and Rin breathed it in shakily. He watched the black flecks of shadow dance over the cracked stone slabs as the kapok leaves stirred above. The same breeze brought the smell of damp earth and cinnamon with it, coiling through the expansive courtyard’s stone pillars. Along for the ride was the fresh smell of water and the bite of lightning. Two massive obelisks - all that remained of the courtyard’s only gate - framed the dark clouds that boiled up on the horizon.

Rin’s family had been lucky during their journey. Rare were the sunny days during monsoon season. Rare were even the cloudy but dry days. Rare were any days that weren’t pouring down sheets of water that threatened to drown anything that dared look upwards. If those gathering clouds had any say, the night wouldn’t be as clear as the day had been.

Hopefully, they can make it back to town before it hits, Rin thought. His dark brown gaze dropped from the horizon to the people gathered at the edge of the Pyramid grounds, just inside the massive entrance gate.

He wasn’t the only one considering the sky. Grandmother’s wrinkled face was stiff as she peered upwards, lips pulled in a deep frown. She huffed in distaste and rearranged the folds of her sari.

Dad stood with his wife, Mami Kaira. Dad had kept a steady stream of chatter throughout the entire trip. He pointed out interesting clouds through breaks in the canopy to his sons, sang silly traveling songs with his youngest daughter, and debated the merits of Solian batik linen versus Franstric polosy wool with his eldest daughter.

Now he was silent, broad shoulders hunched inward.

Mami Kaira had been quiet the entire trip, her embroidery needle an occasional silver flash in the corner of Rin’s eye as she picked out something blocky on pale blue silk.

Now Rin watched her stab the needle into the silk with uncharacteristic force. She yanked it out and stabbed again, muddling the thread further. Abandoning the needle in her work, she tilted her head up and blinked rapidly. Dad tried to wrap his arms around her, but she shoved against his chest.

“He’s twelve,” she hissed, bright eyes glittering. “You’re throwing away another child.” Then she spun on her heel and stalked back through the entrance and out of sight.

Dad watched her go, teeth gnawing at his bottom lip. “Emotion flares,” he reminded himself, hurt splashed across his face. Then he let out a slow, ragged breath and followed her.

“Not even the first son,” Grandmother couldn’t help muttering as soon as Dad was out of range. She pitched her voice just so Rin could hear. But he wasn’t the only one that could.

Beside her, Nika stiffened, and guilt flashed across his round face. He struggled to stand straighter, taller, to somehow fill the role he had inherited. No one moved to comfort him.

In an ironic twist of fate, what Nika should have had by inheritance, Rin had by birth. Rin would be the third in their family to enter the Pyramid. With the spirits’ favor, he might even be the first to leave. There had been a total of four family funerals in the past five years. Rin didn’t think they could weather another one.

“Remember, not a word inside. Understand?”

Rin returned his dark eyes to where Mum, Mami and Dad’s other wife, knelt down to his height. He nodded quickly and shoved down the rising memories of the story she had told last night. The story of her Questing.

“Stay out of the open hallways as much as you can,” Mum continued, hard black eyes focused on Rin, pinning him in place. “You’ve emptied your pockets?”

Rin nodded again. She’d already asked that. Twice.

“Stay focused,” she continued. “And…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze drew up from her son to the imposing structure before them.

Rin hadn’t gotten a good look at the Pyramid yet. He’d caught glimpses, of course. A dark block here. A bit of staircase there. From the moment he’d left the wagon, he’d kept his gaze locked on the vine littered slabs beneath his boots. Then he’d focused on Mum’s face and everyone else’s, trying to get a last look at them all. But for the most part he worried seeing the Pyramid properly would feel… final.

Rin felt more than heard Mum’s shaky sigh, and his attention snapped back to her. A small, crooked half-smile had found its way onto her face, softening the harsh angles. Her dark gaze swept over her son, memorizing his features, so similar to her own. She swept a hand through Rin’s hair, tenderly tucking a stray curl behind his ear. After a moment of hesitancy, she pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, lips lingering in a way she never did. “Come back to me,” she whispered hoarsely, voice so soft that Rin, standing right before her, barely caught it.

I’ll try, he thought, squeezing her hand once.

A shaky breath brushed across Rin’s skin, then Mum pulled back. Her face soft but unyielding; her easy control back in place.

She raised her eyebrows at something back at the gate, then stood gracefully, long limbs moving fluidly. “Say something to your father,” she directed, gently pressing Rin towards Dad, who was making his way towards them.

Mami Kaira was nowhere in sight.

Rin shoved the spike of hurt into his mental box.

He turned to face his father, putting the Pyramid to his back for a few more precious moments.

Dad dropped to his knees and pulled his son into a bone-crushing hug. Unshed tears sparkled in Dad’s eyes. “You’re going to do well, my boy!” he choked out.

“I’ll be back,” Rin said, pulling back from his father slightly.

The big man gave him a watery smile in return, pride warring with grief. “Of course, you will. Such a dutiful son!”

I have to come back. Rin let his fingers tangle in his father’s thick hair as he hugged back. Dad can’t handle losing another son. I have to come back! Over Dad’s shoulder, Rin could make out his siblings. His sisters clustered together, hands held tight. His brother stood alone, trying to be stoic. Rin remembered Aapo’s Questing. Back then, everyone was smiling and laughing; everyone was happy. Everyone was still here. It was a far cry from this.

When Dad stepped back to wrap Mum in his arms, Rin wanted to cry and run for that embrace. To snuggle between them. But he stayed where he was, breathing hard. He watched his family head for the entrance. They had to make it back to town before the rains hit. They had to leave. They had no choice. Rin had no choice. Mum was counting on him. Counting on him to uphold their clan. To be a warrior. To come back home.

“Rin,” Nika called, his soft voice jerking Rin from his rising panic. Nika stood awkwardly before Rin, his coiled hair loose about his ears and dripping into his eyes. Despite being the older brother, Nika had to look up to meet Rin’s eyes.

Shifting from foot to foot, with a glance over his shoulder, Nika shoved a clenched fist to Rin. “It’s from Meggi,” he blurted out. “Not me. But we - she - noticed that you lost your hair tie. During the trip. A-and, well, you don’t want to get it caught anywhere, right? Your hair?”

A yellow silk ribbon dangled from Nika’s fingers. Mami Kaira had embroidered red and blue interlocking diamonds all along it. Not fruits and flowers like she typically did for the girls’ ties.

“Thanks,” Rin whispered, taking the ribbon. He wound the thin strip of fabric through his fingers as he met his brother’s gaze.

Guilt still smothered those amber eyes, but sorrow and fear had done their part as well. Like Rin, Nika remembered Aapo. The difference was that Nika was four months older.

Nika’s gaze swept over Rin, pulling out every detail he could. A slow, ragged breath slid out from his lips. “Come back,” he whispered, the words just barely audible over the rising wind.

Rin nodded. His throat felt too tight.


That… that’s not fair, Rin wailed to himself, twisting the ribbon violently. What if I can’t keep it? But he swallowed and nodded. “I promise.”

Then Nika’s arms were around Rin, crushing Rin’s ribs until they creaked.

Rin squeezed him close and tried to stash the feeling away in his heart.

“I’ll be okay,” Rin whispered, blinking frantically.

“You’ll be okay,” Nika whispered back, voice cracking.

I don’t believe you, he thought.

“Be okay.”

A note from AJ Fluff

Don't mind me, just doing a bit of restructuring.

About the author

AJ Fluff

Bio: I'm a mathematician interested in physics and fantasy. :3

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