Asherah crossed the mountains, made her way through cities breathing with a hundred smells and a hundred languages. She passed over mountains under a depthless sky, and then she came at last to the land she had been seeking, the land she had begun to half believe was a legend, for no such land could be real. It stretched before her, vast and empty and pale under the moon. Ushar, the desert, where her path led over colossal dunes in the ageless silence to the place where red stone pillars stood over crimson sands.
She rode a black horse with a long head and thin legs. It was taller and more agile than her lost pony, and very much swifter, but it did not have the same endless endurance. Asherah wore her sword at her side and new, black-fletched arrows bristled from her quiver. She bore new mail armor and a new scar underneath it. Her pale skin was wrapped in black cloth to keep the sun from it, and her eyes were painted dark to cut the glare. She had begun to learn the ways of the lands of daylight.
At first sight the desert looked like a land without form, the dunes in high waves like ice frozen on a pond. She remembered cascades of ice, and how the water would freeze solid at the grasp of winter and be fixed in shapes all through the cold seasons. This was like that, only the sand shifted beneath the hooves of her steed, and the sighing wind caught up the dust and whirled it into the sky. She was glad to have her face covered, to keep her from breathing it in like ground glass.
She had been warned to keep to the caravan routes that led south across the wasteland to Ahrimaz, and she saw the tracks of many beasts and men in the sand, and so she followed them. In places great posts stood up from the dunes, pennons bright at the tops of them, and they helped to mark the path. Asherah rode with her bow in hand and an arrows set to the string, ready in case some raiders or thieves thought to test her. This way was usually followed by caravans of pack animals, guarded by mercenaries. She rode alone, and so she knew she would seem a ripe target.
The trail led through the dunes and then into a barren, rocky land where ancient river channels cut through the stone and left wandering canyons it would be easy to become lost in. She camped by day in deep shadows, hiding from the fierce sun and the terrible heat. It was like the furnaces of a nightmare, under that blazing light. She traveled by night when there was cool air and starlight to guide her. The day was too bright, and too savage.
She rode for ten nights and sheltered for ten days, and then she followed the rising ground to a stony hill that let her see all around. The caravan path led southwest from here, into kinder lands, and she saw the beginnings of the grasslands she had been told of.
Her path led due east. She rode down the rocky hillside to a narrow defile where there was an oasis, with a small pool welling up from the stone. She let her horse drink while she filled her waterskins, and then she mounted again and rode away from the trail, and into the deep desert, where lay the accursed lands she sought.
Under the silver sword of the moon she followed the trail of what had been a river, but was now only a pathway of dust. Here and there the hooves of her steed snapped on bones half-buried in the silt, and she knew she was on the right path. Ahead of her lay Ushar, a city once great and fabled, girdled round with walls and towers, filled by multitudes. Long before the armies of her ancestors had come to these lands, Ushar had been accursed, and abandoned. Once a river had flowed across what was now a wasteland, and it was said that when the city was cast down, that the river ran with blood and corpses for seven days, before it dried up and ran no more.
There was no shelter here from the sun, and so she rode when she could, stopped to camp when she could find the shelter of rocks or small canyons. Asherah covered her face with black cloth and looked at the world as though through a haze of darkness. Great birds circled overhead, hungry for her flesh, and she rode with an eye to the sky, wary. She watched the cliffs, and sometimes she saw shapes she thought were men, watching her from far away. It was said that no one dwelled in this waste, save ghosts and devils.
Slowly, over three days ride, the sands and stones began to turn to red, until it was as though she rode through a land of ancient blood. The stones rose higher, until they were like lines of shapeless pillars, marching away to the unquiet horizon. They were red like teeth, casting bleak shadows on the hardpan earth. She did not like passing beneath them, and on some of them she saw garlands made from bones and the branches of thorn bushes, tied with black glass beads and hung with dead flowers.
The day died, and the moon rose, and Asherah came in sight of the walls of Ushar, black like blood in the silver light, whelmed by sand and by time, towers fallen into ruin. She drew rein and looked on it, and she let out a long breath, for here at last, after so many weeks of travel, she had reached her goal. Now she would find the trail left by Gathas the sorcerer, and she would follow her stolen king to where he had been taken. She uncovered her face and breathed in the ageless wind, and she rode on.
The walls loomed high in the moonlight, black against a black sky, bitten by time into ruins that tumbled down and lay half-buried in the sands. The red pillars of the earth stood high on all sides, and she stopped for a moment, drawing her horse to a halt as she breathed in the stillness. This was the place, this was the precise angle from which she had seen the ruin through that strange portal so many weeks ago.
She looked down, and indeed, there before her the sand was marked. Half-blurred by winds, the tracks of the wheeled crypt that broken slaves had dragged through the gateway could be seen in the deep sands. The weight of the massive, moving tomb was so great that it had scarred the baked hardpan beneath, and she rode slowly, following the trail as it led her out of the wilderness to where the ruins of the ancient city stood silent in funeral night.
Even the winds here seemed to be still, and there was nothing to break the quiet. Even the soft sound of her horse walking on the sliding sands was loud, and she felt the emptiness pressing in upon her from all sides, as though she were the only living thing for untold reaches all around.
Coiled in her mind were questions she could not answer, and not only one. She had thought that tomb robbers would have sought the fortune buried with the fallen emperor, but they had ignored it, taken only the sarcophagus itself. What did they want his body for? And why bring it here, to such a desolate place, so far from anything? It stank of sorcery, and that made her grind her teeth in anger. That some smug conjurer would use the body of the great Druan for some twisted purpose of dark magic was utterly offensive to her.
Within the walls, there was little to be seen of the city, for much of it was buried by sands and worn down by time. Great pillars and obelisks had long ago fallen to the ground, and those buildings still visible were low and mostly buried and hidden. The city was dead and gone, all save one great structure toward the center. A great round building, covered over with reliefs etched so deeply even the sands had not worn them away, and though the walls were awash with dunes, still the great arched entrance loomed black and empty. Within it, there was a dark ember glow.
Asherah waited, and watched. There was no sound, not a breath of motion in the air at all, yet her hair prickled and stood and she felt herself watched by unseen eyes. She sat easy on her saddle, head bent as if she were drowsing, exhausted and unmoving. Her horse snorted and shifted, and then she turned, quick and sure, drew her bow and loosed.
The arrow was a dark flicker in the silver light of stars and the moon, and it struck quivering in the chest of the black-swathed shape that was no more than twenty paces away from her. It threw back its head and gave a long, wailing cry as it crumpled to the sands, and she saw it had a desiccated, blackened face. It was like a man she had seen frozen to death and left in the ice for years. Yellow teeth gleamed in the moonlight, and then more of the creatures leaped out from shadows and hollow places and rushed upon her.
They did not howl or scream war cries; they simply rushed on her like hounds, and she drew and loosed her arrows as swift as she could. Three of them went down, then six, and then they were too close and she rammed her bow back in its case and drew her sword singing into the light, and her horse screamed as it whirled around, surrounded by clawed black forms.
Her horse was not fierce as a northern pony, but it was quick and agile, and she was glad to feel the ease with which it spun and darted. Asherah swept her sword down and cut off a head, then turned as another creature sprang for the back of her steed. A thin arm reached for her and she hacked it off. There was no blood, no pouring ichor, only a scream and then silence again.
She rushed through them, her blade slashing to one side, then the other, reaping down all who came in reach. She left four more off them twisting and mutilated, and then she broke through and raced for the dark archway that beckoned with a dim red light.
They did not follow her, and she rode to the great dome, drew rein and looked back to see that they had vanished, leaving only the slain upon the sands. She stood and watched, wondering what they were. Were these the last remnants of the inhabitants of the city, or were they cursed ghouls who guarded the place of their death? What once was a grand city had now become a necropolis.
The arched entryway into this last massive building was many times taller than any human who ever walked. It was a place made for giants, or for gods. The entrance led deeper inside, through walls so thick it was like walking into a tunnel. The sides were carved into scenes from the glory ages of the city itself. Asherah saw processions of supplicants and kings, armies marching and conquering. Men with tall helms and long beards ruled over a city of splendor and an empire of plenty.
Asherah climbed down from her horse and led it deeper inside the ruin; under the sands, bones snapped under her feet. This was a city of death, and only death would come from this place. She looked down and saw the marks upon the sand of the passage of the great tomb, and she knew she was on the path she must follow. Sword in hand, she pressed deeper.
She came to a door, and it stood open, the two heavy halves drawn apart. They were a deep green, the carvings upon them obscured by corrosion while the thickness of the metal gleamed darkly. The sands were piled up against them, and it was plain they had been opened very recently. Within, the floor was smooth, and she saw the red glow and knew this was the center of whatever power still lived in this place. She tethered her steed to one of the massive bronze doors and went inside, sword ready in her hand, feet quiet on the ancient floor.
Within, the vast, domed building was one immense chamber, undivided and open, with only a single ring of pillars marching around the inner circle to hold up the roof. The glow blazed out from within, casting red shadows over the floor and the walls. Every inch of stone within was carved with writings and markings that made no sense, and the figures marked there were of strange proportions that hurt the mind to look at. Asherah shuddered, feeling that she was in the presence of something unutterably old.
She went closer, feeling a heat on her face, as though a great fire burned ahead of her, and then she saw that the center of the vast chamber was a pit, and from that pit emanated a glow and a blaze like a fire that did not fade. The light did not flicker, but pulsed slow and heavy, like the beat of some ancient heart. Her own heart ran fast and unceasing as she crossed the wide floor, until she stood on the edge of the pit, and looked down.
The hole was not deep, but it was still several times the height of a human, and at the bottom lay a saw-toothed cluster of jagged stone, like spines or broken crystals, and they glowed from within. She flinched at the feeling of the terrible heat on her face, and it was familiar to her. The broken pieces below looked like stone she had seen in another place, far away. Her head was filled with wonder, thinking on that other place, far to the north, where another hole like this was the resting place of stones that burned and never failed. The star that had fallen from the sky, a gift from the fire goddess to aid them in their time of greatest need. Now, here, she had found another.
And then something moved in the pit, and she stumbled back, afraid and breathing hard. Something rose up, and she stared with her mouth dry and speechless as a human form climbed from the fire. It was like a man, but not like one. It seemed to be made all of jagged, broken pieces of glowing stone, bound together with some invisible force. It was taller than any human had ever been, and it moved with a deadly, fluid grace. More pieces of stone drifted up from beneath and joined its body, and some of them floated in the air around it. The heat from it was fearful, and then it turned to face her and she saw points of light glint there like eyes. Four, then six.
A wave of something passed through the air, like heat shimmer, and she felt as if the mind of the thing – its alien attention – pressed against her own mind and unfolded it, deciphered her as though she were a puzzle too simple to bother with. “What is this?” it said, a voice like the tone of a bell in her mind. “Another come to disturb my long death? Speak.”
Asherah felt her mouth dry as the desert, but she firmed her grasp on her sword, and made herself answer. “I am Asherah, servant of Ajahe, Goddess of Fire. I am of the Karkahd, who for generations have guarded the tombs of the kings. I come seeking those who have done wrong to my people.”
The thing did not move, save for a sliding shift of its strange body. “I care for none of those things. Why are you here? Answer.”
Asherah breathed out a long sigh, a kind of relief. She had wondered for a terrible moment if this were Ajahe herself, but that was not so, and her mind was eased by that. “Men came here, weeks ago. They dragged with them a great, wheeled tomb, and one of them was a man of magic. I seek what they did here, and where they have gone.”
“Ahhhhh,” the thing said, with a strange feeling in her mind. She did not hear the voice with her ears, but rather inside, with her mind, an awareness outside sound. In the great, domed chamber, all was silence save for her own small voice. “Yes, the dark one and his men with him. They woke me from my long sleep, and then they took from me.” It held up one arm, but she could see no hand, nor fingers, only folding, sliding shards. “Are you one of them?”
“They are my enemies,” Asherah said. “I hunt them. I would slay them, and take back what they have stolen.”
“I have been here so long,” the thing said, as if it had not heard her. “I fell from a place I cannot remember, and I broke into pieces. I have lost much of myself. I cannot remember who I was before. My eyes are dark, my mind broken into pieces.” It shifted and folded upon itself. “I have lost my way, and now part of me has been stolen.”
“Please,” Asherah said. “Tell me what they took, and I will follow them, I will take it back and bring it back to you.” She swallowed. “I know where another star lies. I have seen it.”
The thing from the fire went very still. “You have seen it?”
“Yes. It fell far in the north, where the sun never rises, and it is always cold. It made fire that never died, and we took it as the blessings of the Goddess.” She felt her hand clenched tight on the hilt of her sword. She was afraid. This thing was not flesh and blood, how could she fight it, or kill it? She searched for something else to say. “A shard of it was made into a sword. Those I seek stole the tomb where it lies. I would regain it.”
“You took it. You took all of it. You will burn for this.” It came closer, the heat baking against her. “You stole my hand!” it howled in her mind, holding up its left arm.
It lunged for her, and long crystalline blades slashed for her skin, but she dashed them back with her sword, fell from the terrible impact. She rolled to her feet and scrambled back as it came for her. The shadows of the pillars shifted on the wide walls as it followed her.
But it did not follow her very far. As it ventured too far from the pit, it seemed to lose strength, and the glow and the heat of it diminished. Smoke rose from the skeletal form of its body, and it groaned, slumped where it stood.
Asherah did not wait; she darted forward and leaped past it, and as it turned to face her, she barred its way back to the pit of fire. “I am not your enemy, but I will not flee from you!” She thrust her sword up in the darkness, red gleaming on the blade. It had been forged and tempered in this very fire. It would not easily give way. “Tell me what they did! Tell me where they went!”
The thing rushed at her, but she met that rush with a whirl of her sword, and steel met unearthly crystal and sang a song there in darkness. It was tall and had terrible reach, but she was not trying to kill it, she sought only to fend it off, to keep it from reaching the pit, and even as it fought her, she saw its surface darken, and begin to fade.
It left its guard open, and she lunged in under the sweeping talons and caught the back of its leg with her left hand, felt the heat sear her skin. She cried out, and pulled as hard as she could. It wailed as it reeled from her sudden counter and fell against a great pillar, jagged edges of its form scarring the stone.
“Enough,” it begged her. “Let me pass. I am dying. Let me pass!”
“Tell me what you know!” she said, striking a blow on its upraised arm that sang a note like silver bells. The flesh of her hand smoked, and she clenched it against the pain.
“They woke me, but I was powerless. I was too cold, and too slow. They touched me with fire so I would awaken, and then, while I was weak, they struck off my left hand.” It clutched the stump, its heat fading. “They went that way,” it said, pointing east beyond the dome. “Dragging their great golden thing behind them.”
Asherah drew back, and the thing clawed itself across the floor, smoking and losing pieces of itself. She almost pitied it, almost wanted to help it, but she did not. She knew better than to trust a thing of elder sorcery. Something inhuman and terrible. Once it was strong again, it might slay her, if it could.
It dragged itself to the pit, and she watched it fall in. Fire roared up, and she stepped back as she felt the heat grow in the deathly dry air. She watched the pit, but it did not emerge, did not speak again. She backed away, until she could place the pillars between her and the pit of flame. The circle of pillars that she guessed might have marked the limits of its strange life for ages.
She left it there, crossing the wide floor to the great doors. She took her horse and mounted it again, rode out into the silent ruins of the dead city of Ushar. She circled the great shrine of fire, and then she went east through the empty streets. There she saw the marks of the great wheels in the sand, and she followed them eastward, toward the setting moon.
Her hand burned, and she looked at it, seeing the angry burns seared on her flesh. She knew the scars would remain, like this place, and the ancient being trapped here. Something that might be a god, or might have once been a god, like the last ember in a dead fire. Asherah rode into the desert once again, seeking.