I ordered three of the rankers to conduct Runt out to the dunes. There was a burial valley out there, just beyond the city's walls. He'd be in good company. Far too many of our brothers were already there.
Half-high insisted on leading the detail personally, despite being a corporal. Say what you want about the man. He might have been mean as a desert jackal. He might have made the rankers live in a state of constant, abject terror.
But Half-high genuinely loved his team. No force in this world would stop him from personally saying the final word over Runt's grave.
I dismissed the formation as soon as the burial detail left the barracks courtyard. After that, I turned over OIC duty to Sergeant Kell.
According to regs, an officer was always supposed to act as OIC. But I was one of just four left in the Raiders, and the only one currently in Kairo. Since Sergeant Kell was the ranking NCO, the two of us had been splitting OIC duties until Captain Rickard got back with Slack and Baraz.
"You going to rack out, Xev?"
"In a bit," I said. "I need to go clear my head for a while. I'll be back soon."
Sergeant Kell didn't press for details. He was an old hand, with just over twelve years' service under his belt. He'd been with Captain Rickard almost since the beginning, and had seen more than his share of horrors in that time.
If anyone understood the need for occasional solitude, it was him.
I took the five silver I'd reserved from my personal stash, bought a kebab and a chai, and headed over to the Grand Library of Kairo. Call it a holdover from my pre-soldiering days in academia, but part of me always felt at home in the stacks.
And some nights, I just needed to remember why the hell I got into this business, anyway.
I'd joined the Raiders around three years previous, when they first arrived in Kairo. Captain Rickard's men were something of a curiosity, selling an unconventional skillset to the highest bidders. They were hard men with a hard reputation, outlanders from the Northern Continent who didn't fear the dark places under the earth.
I was an outlander, myself. But I was as far from a hardened mercenary as you could imagine.
I was a student, living in Kairo on a generous scholar's stipend. I didn't harbor any naive, romantic notions about the life of a soldier-for-hire. I liked my cozy libraries and lecture halls, and had dreams of a comfortable life as a tenured professor. Preferably in one of the universities on the Jewel Coast.
I also wasn't someone who needed to prove something to himself.
I signed on with the Raiders because I couldn't accept the dogmatic answers my professors were giving me. Especially not when I asked about the single most exciting subject in the curriculum.
The Crypt of the Dune Kings.
Understand, half the reason I even applied for a position in Kairo was that I'd get to study the Crypt first hand. There were volumes of scholarship on it. An entire wing of the Grand Library of Kairo was devoted to it, housing rare scrolls and manuscripts. There were primary sources here, written by some of the first known explorers of the Crypt.
I devoured it all, eagerly waiting for my professors to plan an expedition to test their theories.
And I waited.
And I waited some more.
Around the end of my second year, I realized the greatest living "experts" on the Crypt did nothing but rehash and compare crumbling old books. Despite the fact that it was right here, not one professor in Kairo had so much as set foot inside.
None had for generations. It was ego-driven madness.
Eventually, I got tired of having my questions ignored, dismissed, or outright ridiculed. I knew where to get my answers.
That said, don't go assigning me unselfish motives. I wasn't driven by anything as high-minded as the pursuit pure, uncorrupted knowledge. I had an eye on my own academic reputation. I wanted to write the definitive thesis on the Crypt. Generations from now, I wanted my name to be mentioned in the same breath as giants like Parvis, Jahan, and Masood.
Talk about ego-driven.
At any rate, I waited for the Raiders to announce a temp-hire, told my professors I was going on hiatus, and made straight for Copper Cross.
That the Raiders agreed to take me was nothing short of a miracle. I was a bookish kid with hardly a muscle on me, and an overly fat belly. My hands were unused to hard work. They made me a torchbearer, assigned me to Sergeant Kell's squad, and—in all likelihood—wrote me off.
That I survived my first delve was beyond a miracle.
Even so, I got my first exposure to the Crypt. And I immediately realized half of what my professors spewed was garbage. I stayed on for a second delve, and a third, further refining my own theories and thesis notes each time.
Eventually, someone told Captain Rickard I knew how to read hieroglyphs. When he pressed me for details back at the barracks, I told him I could actually read and write several languages. Around half of them ancient.
I was made a full-fledged Raider on the spot. I was also given an immediate promotion to assistant operations officer.
Being handed a commission right out of the gate was a mixed blessing. The enlisted respected me even less than they did most new recruits. Some of them—especially Rabbit—still didn't.
On the other hand, I was paid as a lieutenant. I was also privy to a lot of behind-the-scenes leadership and planning meetings. Even if I was expected to keep my mouth shut for most of them, I learned fast.
Three years on, and my fellow Raiders finally considered me "seasoned." But just barely.
The former operations officer had died a year into my tenure. I'd had the job ever since, meaning I spent more time on planning and logistics than on anything else. As a result, my butt was usually glued to my office chair.
It wasn't the most glamorous job in an outfit like the Raiders. But it was the one I was good at.
Most of the time, that was enough.
The Grand Library of Kairo wasn't open for casual visitors, but the remaining four silver pieces in my hand took care of that. As far as the librarians were concerned, everyone was a scholar if their coin was pure enough.
I wandered, inhaling the smells of old vellum and papyrus, lost in my own thoughts, finding my way to the ancient history section on pure reflex. I poked around the scrolls dealing with my surface interests—lineage, history of the city-state, great conquerors. Eventually, I drifted over to the library's east wing, and the subject that always kept me coming back here.
The Grand Library has about four thousand manuscripts pertaining to the Crypt of the Dune Kings. You could spend a lifetime reading them all, but it would be a waste of time. As I'd learned in my previous, academic life, most of the existing literature on the Crypt just references older literature. The number of primary sources written by men who'd actually been there filled less than half a shelf.
That said, there was a reason those same few sources sparked so much interpretation, argument, and analysis over the centuries.
They simply didn't agree with one another.
No one agrees who built it, when, or how. No one has any real idea who the legendary Dune Kings were. The Crypt itself is the only surviving remnant of their civilization.
No one even agrees on basic facts, like the crypt's size and layout.
Granted, I had a pet theory about that. One that would have gotten me laughed out of the lecture halls if I ever presented it to my old professors.
The oldest scrolls in the library date from when Kairo wasn't much more than a village of goat herders. Even then, they contain veiled references to the "shunned place" and the "great stone house beneath the dunes."
According to those records, the Crypt was "one plethron long and one half wide." Or about 100 feet by 50 feet. They also only mention a single entrance.
Later records mention a second entrance, and put the length of the Crypt at "three stades," or over 1800 feet.
The most recent records, dating back about 200 years, bring it up to seven entrances, and more than three miles across.
Most scholars assigned a mundane explanation. Shifting sands and annual rains uncovering more of the Crypt over time. Unreliable record keeping. The usual suspects.
I didn't agree. I thought it was growing.
Like a malignant tumor.
Admittedly, it wasn't much more than a gut feeling. Something hard to explain unless you've been there. When you're down in the Crypt, it feels like the walls themselves are watching you. Dark is darker. Cold is colder. Torches and lamps don't seem to throw as much light as they should.
It doesn't feel like you're walking through corridors made of stone, even though that's what your eyes and ears are telling you.
It feels like you're in the gullet of some colossal beast.
I don't know. Maybe I've been doing this too long.
Maybe I'm just getting burnt out, superstitious, or both.
Maybe it was time to leave mercenary life behind, and come back to academia. Admittedly, the idea of spending more time in a nice, cool lecture hall was appealing. Especially after last night's bloody turf war.
I loved my brothers in the Raiders. I wouldn't trade my time there for anything. But sooner or later, I was going to be too old to fight ghouls for money.
And tonight, "sooner" was starting to feel like it was just around the corner.