I wrote this last night in one of those torrents of inspiration writers wish would happen far more often than they ever actually do, and have the lurking suspicion that in a month or so I'll look back at it and go "What was I on?" (For the record, future self: shrimp scampi and pinot noir. Mmm, shrimp.) Still, the idea was intruiging and I'm rather proud of how it turned out.
The world they arrived in was presided over by a huge blood-red sun in a stark and shadowed sky. Towers stretched into the distance, overwhelming and glorious, the forgotten shell of a magnificent civilization. Fai shivered when he saw it, and although the world was far from chilly, he did not remove his coats.
Kurogane was the first to notice the reason behind the silence. "No animals," he told them. "No animals, and no plants. Something killed everything in this world. There's not even a smell of decay. They just turned to dust." Syaoran, who had more of a scientific education, ventured that whatever had killed the plants and animals - somehow it did not occur to him to doubt they had been killed - had killed the bacteria as well. Kurogane demanded an explanation of the term "bacteria" and that took them through miles of empty streets, past chipping walls mosaiced with precious stones and empty fountains made of marble and gold, streets covered with red-brownish dust, things rattling in the gutters that no one cared to examine more closely.
Finally they drew up before a pair of great crystal gates standing ajar, surrounded with ornate carvings that looked almost like words. Sakura leaned on Syaoran's shoulder and asked if he could read them; Mokona made encouraging noises. But Syaoran shook his head. "The letters look familiar," he said. "But I havn't seen anything like this before."
They stared at the gates for a long moment, wathicng the red light echo within their thickness, before Fai said, "I know where we are."
"Then tell us," Kurogane growled. "Why didn't you tell us before?"
"I wasn't sure, Kuro-tan," Fai said, and everyone could hear the strain in his voice. "But I can read those letters. I've heard of this place, in old stories. This is the city of Charn. It died long ago."
Sakura said, hesitantly, "Why did it die? Is it something we should be afraid of?"
"No," Fai said, and would say nothing more. Mokona still felt only one source of power, and insisted they keep going, so they pushed the gates open and walked on, into a courtyard surrounded by arches, a few of which had collapsed into themselves. They took one of the standing arches into a maze of corridoors and empty rooms, until at last the light of the red sun vanished and Kurogane herded them into one of the small empty rooms to sleep.
Fai insisted on standing watch that night, although there had been no signs of any danger that needed to be watched against, and when they awoke there was no sign that he had so much as dozed. They sipped a little water from Syaoran's canteen, for there had been no water to be found anywhere in the city, and Fai produced a bag of toffee candies from under his coat. He gave most of them to Sakura, although she said she wasn't hungry.
Their footsteps echoed in the empty halls as they passed through more and darker halls, until at last they passed through two tall golden doors into a room that took their breath away. Arrayed against its walls in stone chairs were a row of statues, hundreds of statues, of tall people with noble expressions in rich clothing and bejewled robes, every one crowned. Fai hissed as they entered the room, and something indefinable prickled on their skin.
Although there were hundreds of statues, there were more empty chairs. As they walked down the room, they saw that the expressions of the statues changed. At first, the expressions were noble, noble and peaceful and brimming over with joy. But soon the joy vanished, replaced by something like tension, some ambiguous quality that suggested beneath their smiles was great pain.
They came to a halt in front of the last statue, a thin dark-haired woman, with an expression of fierce and terrible determination. "There's something about her," Sakura said. "She's done something. You can see it. Something she very much didn't want to, but had to just the same, because there was no way out of it."
Fai's smile was inscrutable. "Done by a brilliant sculptor," he murmured, and turned aside with almost unseemly haste to inspect the one feature in the middle of the room, a small pillar with a bell on top of it.
There was writing on the side of the pillar, but somehow no one except Fai wanted to take a closer look. He walked right up to it, though, and leaned in to read the writing. His lips moved as he did, but he made no sound. After a while he stood up and shook his head sadly. "There's nothing here for us. We had best go on."
"Are you sure?" Sakura asked.
"Yes, I'm sure," Fai said. "These were the Kings of Charn. They have nothing to give us now, and we have no quarrell with them." For a moment, although he was far shorter than any of the statues, Sakura could see a resemblance between his face and their faces, and his robes fell about him like living glory and all that was lacking was the crown. "We should go."
They were silent as they left through the doors on the other end, and almost at once the feeling that had pricked their skin vanished. "What was that?" Kurogane grumbled. "It felt like someone was casting a spell on us."
"The Kings of Charn were great magicians," Fai told them, some of the glib humour returning to his face. "It was in their blood. Some people said that all magicians, everywhere, have a little blood of that royal line in them. I don't believe it, myself." He shook his head, like a wet dog. "They're long gone. That was just a spell to keep their memory safe. Come on."
"What happened here?" Sakura asked him.
"It doesn't matter," Fai said, his face hidden beneath his hood. "This world will die, soon. Vanish. The magic has evaporated from it. I expect, Sakura-chan, that if your feather had not come here it would be years closer to that death."
They trailed him into another courtyard, one large enough for a thousand people to gather, where an empty fountain with a silver centerpiece rested in a lattice of red sunlight. The feather sparkled, gently turning and casting blue gleams across the stone. Fai pulled up his robes and skipped into the fountain; he would have been wading, if there had been any water. He plucked the feather off the centerpiece and returned it to the princess, and they left and did not speak of Charn again.
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had. - C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew