The sun cursed the skies over the endless sands of the Zaheh, turning the dunes into waves of gold and azure, the shadows deep as night. The day was failing, but not fast enough. Shedjia rode her camel across the barren landscape of a waste older than any kingdom, and she looked with her hawk’s eyes for a sign.
She was wrapped in black silks and linens, covered against the fierce heat of the day, only her eyes peering forth, heavily rimmed with kohl to cut the glare of the merciless sun. The winds moaned, and she listened uneasily, hoping she did not hear a voice utter her name. This place was forsaken by all men, wandered only by the desperate, and the dead. She was one, and she hoped not to join the other. A spirit caught in this trackless land would wander for an eternity.
Her beast was almost done, and she rode him as easily as she could, trying to keep him going as long as his strength would last. The pace of her journey had exhausted him, and he walked with his head down, and only occasionally did he give forth one of his ugly, groaning cries.
At the top of a dune she looked back, squinting through the heat shimmer, and she saw them there. Riders followed her faint track across the sand. There were perhaps a dozen of them, she could not say for certain. She cursed all gods living and dead, for no one would follow her in this waste for a gentle cause. They were marauders come to sell her into slavery, if they did not cut her throat first. The kinds of bandits who haunted this part of the world would be the lowest, most feral kind. Madmen of the desert.
Perhaps she had been mad as well to ride here, to seek a treasure she risked everything to obtain. Like any gamble, if she won she would seem brilliant and courageous, and if she failed the sands would swallow her bones. She had carried out many thefts – enough to make her half a legend – but nothing compared to this. Now she hunted through the ruins of an empire so old its very name was a legend, and she sought a jewel so fabulous it should not exist.