Shath rode across the mountains under a black sky tormented by storms, and then he descended into a land of silent forests that dreamed of other ages. It was strange to him to ride beneath the canopy of trees and not to see the sky. To feel the cool breeze upon his face and hear nothing but the drone of insects in the deep night. This was a land unlike any he had ever seen, and it made him wary.
That was well, for on the second night the roots of a tree ripped loose from the earth and encoiled his spare mount and dragged it down screaming. He woke to the forest moving around him, branches waving in no breeze, and then he learned why the forest was so silent. He learned to see the bones buried beneath the leaves and to know why the trees rustled and shifted when there was no wind.
So he rode on, and on, day and night, not resting, until his zhar died and he drank its blood and left the body for the hungering forest, and then at last he emerged from the forest and stepped into the empty lands beyond. This was the country known only to legends. A land of death and the dead, and what else he could not know. It seemed fair to him, a land of gentle grass and small gatherings of woodland that clustered beside the streams and lakes. He knew it was not so gentle.
He crossed into the death lands alone, beneath the star-scattered night, and he went with a sword in his iron hand and watchful, for he knew there was terror in this place. He did not find it for many days. He crossed the rolling grasslands, and he waded the shallow streams, and the air was sweet, yet he saw no signs of men, and no beasts save small vermin in the undergrowth. He slept in the open, looking up at the broken moon, and by day he went west.
When he came to the river, he knew it was poisoned, as the banks were black and layered with bones, and the weeds that grew in the shallows were red and writhed in the sun. He looked across the water to the desolate land beyond it, and he saw bare rock and ancient metal and piles of skulls, and he knew he had come, at last, to the place men feared.
He searched until he found the remains of an ancient bridge, sagging into the water, rusted and hung with unclean mosses. Careful, he made his way across, breathing the bitter stink of the river beneath him. He did not know what would happen if he fell in, and he did not wish to. Instead he clung hard with his iron hand and reached the far shore and set his feet upon an accursed country.
Little grew in this place, and the soil was glass and metal ground into dust. Remains of the ancient world jutted from the ground, corroded and shapeless. It was impossible to say what they had been, and now all they did was mark the path. This had been a road, and he could still see enough to follow it. It wound between hills and passed beneath crumbling arches, and it led deeper into the lands of death.
When the red sun rose again, Shath saw there was something before him, and as the light rose he saw it was a city, or the remains of a city. Spires all of metal, like lattices, rose from the desolation. The sun gleamed on glass and broken steel, and heat shimmered in the air above the broken road. Shadows circled in the sky above, wheeling in the red light, and they looked like birds, save they were too large, and he wondered what they might be.
He held his sword in his iron right hand as he followed the road. The stone beneath his feet was broken and covered in drifts of sand, and here and there lay the remains of metal objects, crushed and corroded, some with bones imprisoned within them. He felt a strange longing to see the city more closely, for he knew that here was a remnant of a world that had long vanished, and from that world his own had sprung. Through the waver of the heat above the earth, he thought he saw glimpses of the city restored to a former age, clean and bright and shining.
He passed beneath a sagging arch, and then he was within the compass of the ruins, buildings to either side, the streets filled with rubble and drifted with sand and dust. The structures rose up and up on all sides, taller than even the towers of Zur, yet shattered and empty and silent as tombs. This place was a tomb, he realized. Once this had been a city of unimaginable scale, filled with people. Now it was a ruin, and the bones of its inhabitants lay beneath the shifting sands and crumbled unseen in the shadows.
The road led him between the rows of crumbling towers, over cracks and heaps of debris, until he stood at a great plaza, open and clear, and at the edges stood iron stakes and on them human skulls were impaled and left to bleach in the sun. He looked and saw no other bones, only skulls and then fragments, small shards as though from shattered ribs and legs, and then he heard a thin cry and looked up.
The birds were circling again, only now he was close he saw they were as big as a man. They were great, powerful forms that circled in the red light of the dying sun, and as he looked he saw eyes gleam down on him, and then one by one the shadows folded their wings and dove upon him.
He heard the screams, and then he saw them clear, saw they were manlike shapes with long, fanged jaws and hooked talons, and great leathery wings that carried them aloft. They streaked downward, screaming as they dove, and he knew what had created the carpet of bones in this place.
They spiraled down, a torrent of claws and wrath, and he leaped to a high place, atop a pile of ruin, and he met them with his sword in his iron right hand. They reached for him with their long jaws and scored him with their talons, but he answered them with terrible, unstoppable sweeps of his long blade, and he cut them from the air. He cut off their wings and left them to flop and howl upon the ground, and he rent their bodies apart. Blood showered down all around him, painted his face, and he tasted it and felt alive again.
They drew away from him, a cloud of wings that screamed, and he stood over a dozen of them dead or dying. He flicked blood from his sword and called for them to come again, and they did, whirling down upon him, and he hacked at them, slaying more of their number, but their claws gripped him, and this time they bore him up into the air.
He fought them, but the ascent was swift and bewildering, and before he realized how high he was, he was far above the ground. He felt their teeth rip at his scaled armor, but they could not reach his flesh. They carried him high above the poisoned earth, and then they let him fall.
There was a moment of breathless freedom as he seemed to float, and then his weight pulled him down. The side of the tower blurred past him, and then he thrust out his sword and it cut through steel and wedged hard in a beam, and he felt the strain of the cords of his false arm as they pulled inside him, making him grunt in pain.
The hunters shrieked, but Shath moved swiftly, pulling himself up and inside the ruin, ripping his blade free of the notch it had cut. Inside, it was dark, and he moved across a sagging and uneven floor. The creatures outside screamed and battered their wings against the outer walls, but they dared not come inside where the beams and crumbling walls would restrict their motion and deny them easy escape.
He moved carefully, sure he would fall if he placed a foot wrong. This tower was ancient, more ancient than his race, and the fact that it stood at all was a mark of the greatness of those who raised it. He saw no purpose in going up, so he went down. He found a hole in the floor and dropped through, then sought another. The cries of the beasts outside faded as they lost sight of him and whirled back to their heights.
Slowly, he moved through the dark, feeling his way, moving ever downward, until he came to a floor half-gone, and beneath it a great void that fell away into rushing darkness, and he saw no easy way down, nor could he judge the distance. He stood for a moment, thinking, and he heard a small sound behind him.
He turned, poised for killing, and he saw only a small, pale form. He lowered his sword and moved closer, saw it was a human shape but small, like a child. It moved away from him and he saw wide dark eyes and small white wings that curled around it protectively as it shrank back. It made small sounds that he judged to be words, but he did not understand them.
He crouched down, sword resting on the floor, and he spoke to the thing in a soft voice. “I do not know your words. I will not hurt you.” He beckoned with his left hand, the hand of flesh and bone. “Come closer.”
The creature looked at him, blinking huge eyes, and then the white wings uncurled and it shifted to crouch on the floor. He saw the pale skin and feathers were dirty, and the face was hollow-eyed and gaunt. He wondered how long it had been here. Thinking, he reached into his pouch and brought some strips of dried meat, held them out and waited, not looking, until small fingers took them.
The creature ate hungrily, chewing hard, and when he saw that it had slowed he gave over his waterskin and let the small one drink. He thought it was a female of whatever kind it was, though it was no larger than a child. He could not be certain if it was truly a child, or if it was of a very small race. He had never seen anything like it before.
It gave him back his waterskin, and he slung it, seeing a bit of life come back into the wide, dark eyes. He could imagine something like this being driven in here by the hunters outside, and then unable to leave. He looked over the edge into the dark and wondered why it had not flown down. He sniffed and smelled nothing but dirt and mold and the rust of fallen ages. If there was danger below, he could not sense it.
He looked at the creature and beckoned, pointed down into the dark, and it backed away a step and shook its head. It looked frightened, and he wondered if it was simply a flying creature’s fear of closed, low places. But then he wondered if any such fear, unsupported, would truly push someone to the edge of starvation. He did not think it would be that foolish. Something lurked below, something a small, light-boned one such as this would fear. But he was not such a one.
He beckoned again, and slowly, the girl came to him. She stood no higher than his waist, and so he bent and picked her up, cradled her against his side with his left arm, and he readied his sword in his right. He would not remain here to die in darkness, nor would she.
Shath dropped down to a lower beam, and then another. The darkness closed over them, but he found there were footholds, and a path downward. The girl made a mewling sound and pressed her face against his chest, and then he dropped lower, and lower, until he landed on crushed rubble and churned earth and he was at the bottom of the tower. He saw no light, so he did not know the way out. He narrowed his eyes, trying to see, and then a light flared in the dark.
A green fire blazed above him, and then he looked and saw a great, black-armored scorpion, many times larger than a man. The venomed bulb of its stinger glowed with sickly light, and where it touched the chitinous shell it turned it to black etched with a shimmering green.
He shifted to put his right side forward, still holding the girl against him. She saw the beast and screamed a thin, hopeless cry, and at the sound the scorpion attacked. The claws as long as his body snapped forward, and he knew they would try to hold him fast for the stab of the stinger, but he was no easy prey for a desert scavenger. He was Shath the Iron-Handed. He had not come this far to become food for a creature such as this.
His sword flashed down and clove one long claw asunder, letting colorless ichor pour out on the ground. The other claw snapped for him and he severed it with one clean blow, then he stepped in and drove the blade through the creature’s head, splitting the cluster of eyes apart.
In the corner of his eye he saw the stinger plunge downward and he left his sword rooted in the thing and caught the sickle stinger with his metal palm, snapping it off. He ripped his sword free and then he stepped away to watch the thing curl and die, shivering in a crumpled heap.
The venom bulb still glowed, so he cut it off and then skewered it on the tip of his sword and carried it with him for light. There was a place where the floor sloped down into a blackened archway, and he went down into a tunnel. It smelled musky and foul in here, and he watched for more inhabitants as he carried his small companion into the dark.
The tunnel went on for a long distance, and Shath saw signs and markings on the walls, almost hidden by dust and time, and he knew they were passing beneath the city on some ancient underground way the old ones had used when the city was a living place. It was hard to imagine that world that had vanished, before the moon broke apart and the sun turned red in the sky. Before the seas were poisoned and burning metal fell from the sky.
In time, he saw light, and he forged ahead until he came to a place where the earth had been ripped open, and the tunnel left gaping to the sky. He had walked beyond the city, and here were only a few small ruins being devoured by the encroaching sand. He looked back, to the place of silent towers, seeing the distant specks of the sky hunters circling there.
He understood, now, why these were called the Lands of Death. It was not because they were more dangerous than other places on the face of the world. It was because this was a place for the memory of death. Here the bones of the old world lay exposed to the sky. Here the memories of the dead world could not be pushed away. This was a land of open graves, the inhabitants unremembered.
He came to a place out of the sun and he shook the fading venom bulb from his sword and left it in the sands. He set the girl down on her feet and gave her more water, watched her drink it eagerly, but she was wise enough not to drink too much. He gave her some more dried meat and some shriveled berries. He wondered what other food he might find in this place. He would have to watch closely, for there was little to be had here in the arid lands.
The girl spoke to him, making her small words, and he listened, but did not understand. He wondered if she would go, or if she would follow him. He did not know where she came from, or how far from her home she might be. He wondered how she had come to be here.
She spoke again and he shook his head to show her he did not understand. He thought for a moment, and then he crouched down and began to draw in the sand. He smoothed it, and then he traced the shape of the Tree of Death – the ever-forking branches all pointed upwards to the sky, tipped by the sharp leaves like arrowheads. He worked carefully, and when he was finished he pointed at it, then gestured all around them questioningly.
For a moment he thought she would not understand, but then she stared closely at the thing he had drawn, and nodded slowly. He saw she was afraid, but she stood up and looked at the horizons, and then she chose a direction and pointed. She counted on her three-fingered hands until she had six fingers, and she held them up to him. Six days. He could likely move more quickly, because he was larger than she.
The sun was fierce, and so he settled down in the shade of the ruins and waited for night. He wondered if his companion would leave him and go her own way, but she did not. She waited there beside him while the sun burned down in the west, and the sky turned deep blue-black and roared with stars. The air grew cooler and he stood. She came and climbed up and sat on his shoulder, and she pointed the way. He set forth into the sands, sword in his hand, tireless and implacable. The sky looked down unending, streaked with trails of fire.