Year 4 SC (1512 Stayatam), The desert outside Sha-Mikat
The whirlwind of sand towered up into the sky, too high to see the end. Kalem Iqashit, at the head of his army, raised a hand to shield his eyes from the desert sun. It was just to the south of Sha-Mikat, this tower of wind and sand. Far too big to be a dust devil, or anything so natural. In fact, it seemed to be coming from the hills near the… oh no.
He heard an Aq walk up beside his own, the bird’s claws digging into the sand. He turned to see that tall, stately figure of Shilna Badhit. She was dressed in traditional battle garb, ornamental carved bronze armor weighed heavily with ocean-blue lapis lazuli. Kalem sometimes hated how she would flaunt her clan’s wealth, when compared to his own far less impressive costume, but there was no time for such things now.
“The Gate,” Shilna said under her breath. She stared at the horizon, at the churning sand. Her knuckles were white gripping her reins.
“So they opened it?” Kalem swallowed a lump in his throat. Why should he be scared?
Shilna was silent for a long while. “Surely we… we should not be jumping to such conclusions. How would…” She slowly, without turning her eyes from the east, dismounted. Her feet crunched on the sand. “How would they even do it?” Her voice was raspy.
“What does this mean, my friend?” Kalem asked, joining her on the ground. “For us, for our war? For our clans?”
The whipping wind had reached them, ruffling their clothes and kicking up the surrounding sand. Kalem thought it was likely just the sand in the air, but, was the sky getting darker? He had never seen the chieftainess of the Badhit clan so shaken. She was a solid force, a momentum to either submit to or flee from. But now, her legs almost seemed to shake. She slowly turned to him, meeting his eyes. “I don’t know.”
The cavern inside was dark, and the air felt more humid than Qela expected. She led Tajani and Jamitayyin through the Gate, past the ancient patterns carved deep into the stone that lined the tunnel beyond. None-the-less, there was a light to the place, enough to see by, coming from no discernible source.
A part of her felt numb. Abilel was gone, taken by the sand and the Story that she had told. Qela had never crafted a Story that powerful. It had simply flowed through her, like blood through a vein, and the power of that wind scared her. She looked around. The cavern was dark.
“Tajani,” Jamitayyin said, his voice louder than he intended, causing them all to wince. “You spent your life studying this place. Is this what we’re to expect?”
“I…” Even Tajani’s level speech sounded far too loud in this empty place. “I’m not sure. The Court is more than caverns, it is the place of holiness itself. It does not shape itself the way normal things do.” She looked over the carvings in the wall. “These match the descriptions at least. Ancient patterns, made even before people themselves.” She turned and looked deeper into the tunnel. “His Court was never far from those who needed it. I don’t know how far these tunnels go, but we shouldn’t have to travel much.”
They walked without comment for several more minutes. The tunnels branched off in various ways, but Tajani kept them headed relatively straightforward. It was clear that she wasn’t sure whether that was the right choice. None of the others said anything about that. Qela had noticed that Tajani was pointedly not looking her way. She was worried about how Tajani would react when she found out that Qela was a Storycrafter, but she had had no idea what that response would be. Was it all in her head? Or was Tajani really suddenly treating her differently?
Her thoughts were halted as a massive dark space opened up before them. The tunnels had grown more primal as they had walked, the stone seeming less carved and more shaped the further into the courts they had travelled, and the walls had simply fallen away, leaving them in a massive underground space. Through the Court’s dim ethereal light Qela could see massive stalagmites peppered throughout the cave, and the ground was uneven.
“Hello?” Jamitayyin’s voice echoed away to the unseen other side. Qela and Tajani jumped.
“What are you doing?” Tajani hissed.
He shrugged. “There’s nothing here. Tajani, doesn’t that concern you?”
Tajani nodded solemnly. It was disturbingly quiet, Qela thought. Perhaps she hadn’t expected fanfare at their arrival, but this was meant to be the court of God, wasn’t it? So why did it seem so empty?
“We just have to keep going forward,” Tajani said. “That is the point of faith.”
Qela watched as she took a step into the sloping cave entrance. There was a fragile crunching sound under her first step. Surprised, Tajani lifted her foot and peered down. Hidden under the dust, revealed by Tajani’s disturbance, Qela saw bones. Broken and scattered.
“This is a cursed place,” Jamitayyin said under his breath.
Qela became exceedingly aware of the volume of their speech. “Perhaps we should keep our voices low for a while,” she said. Tajani made a silent agreement, staring at the bones in disbelief.
Jamitayyin crouched down. “What are they? Human? OnKitabie?” He prodded a skull fragment with a finger and watched as it crumbled to dust under the pressure.
Tajani’s voice was flat. “Mortal, at the very least.”
“Remnants of the Deep Magic Rebellion,” Qela said. “That’s what it has to be, right? These are the dead of those killed by the Old Things in the final battle where Yongit shut the gate.”
There was a moment of silence. Tajani stood back up, looking out into the darkness before them. “We just have to keep going forward,” she said, quieter.
It was a difficult trek through the cavern. They tried their hardest to avoid stepping on any more remains, but the floor was seemingly covered in the bones. Each crunching footfall echoed off the walls around them and through the expanse of darkness, and each time the three of them would wince and wait several moments for the noise to die down. Qela had no sense of time by the end, but it must have been at least an hour of straight walking before the other side of the room appeared. Relieved, stumbling over the uneven ground and avoiding the piled bones, they approached the wall. It was rough stone, covered in stalagmites and protrusions. In the center of it, recessed deep into the rock, was another pair of doors. And around it was piled a near mountain of bones. Eye sockets in sand-stained skulls stared at them as they approached. These skeletons were more fully formed, full ribcages and limbs packed tight together in their dusty piles.
“Why did no-one bury these poor souls?” Jamitayyin said, staring at the grisly sight. Qela opened her mouth to say something, but had no words. Instead, they watched in silence as Tajani approached the doors. They were finely carved, but somehow still natural, with waving patterns of stone. They were perhaps only half of the height of the first gate, and there was a clear handle in the center for them to swing inwards. Tajani ran her hand over them, resting it on the handle.
A fear gripped Qela. She felt the looming presence of the bones around them. “Tajani?” she whispered. There was a quiver in her voice that she hadn’t intended. She realized that her hand was resting on the hilt of her sword. “How far do we go for faith?” Her eyes were fixed on her mentor’s hand, resting on the handle to the next set of doors.
Tajani stared at the rock for a long time. Her hand did not move, her thumb tracing slowly over the grooves in the painted wood. Eventually she closed her eyes and lowered her head. “Well, Qela,” she said. “Apparently you would burn books.” Then she clenched her fist around the handle and pushed it open. The stone swung easily, and as soon as the doors cracked open, an ear-splitting howl tore the world apart.
Kalem and Shilna led a small contingent of Aqin riders across the river, approaching the Gate. They had left most of their army behind, as they would be too slow. It wasn’t a matter of keeping secrets, as everyone could see the violent maelstrom swirling over the mountains now. The sky was filled with clouds of sand, and the soldiers were just as scared as Kalem was.
Their bird mounts’ feet thundered across the sand as they cleared the river. Kalem turned to see Shilna crouched low on her mount, sword drawn, determination hard-set in her eyes. Their two dozen Aqin riders surrounded them in an impromptu honor guard, desert scarves wrapped around their faces against the kicked-up sand.
All at once a torrent of wind erupted from the hills before them. It screamed, an echoing anger that filled the sky. Shilna screamed a halt, and Kalem falteringly pulled on his Aq’s reigns as the riders stopped. They watched as out of the hills and into the air climbed a darkness. It was massive and formless, appearing as a column of black sand joining the storm above them. They covered their faces as the desert rose around them, sand swirling and biting into their skin. Several of the Aqin bucked, shaking off their riders and dashing away from the mountains.
“Court of God,” Shilna wheezed, fighting to keep her mount calm as she stared off into the sandstorm that was growing before them. Kalem followed her gaze. In the foothills, half-hidden in the sand and wind, was a line of dark figures. Tall and thin. And they were moving fast, the sand swirling around them. Kalem screamed as he realized it. The Old Things, more than they had seen in centuries, were back.
Qela was backed into a corner. The swirling masses of dark sand slammed against her, tearing her skin and robes. She could see through the grit the crowd of black forms, shapeless yet still humanoid, charging out of the door. The one closest had its arms raised, directing the sand, buffeting her with its dark magic. She raised her arm, sword clenched tight, and charged forward, pushing against the wind. Where were the others? She didn’t let the thought get to her as the thing threw a hasty punch with an arm formed from black sand. She jumped forward with a yell, slamming the point of her blade into its chest. An ear-piercing shriek nearly ripped her head in two as the black sand crumbled away. She found herself screaming with it.
Several more charged at her as she wiped the sand from her eyes. The line of Old Things thrust their arms forward, and a wall of wind knocked her back. She felt the dust grind into her cuts, scraping the skin further. She grit her teeth, spitting out a glob of saliva filled with sand. Then she saw, behind the line of monsters attacking her, Tajani and Jamitayyin were crouched against the pile of bones. The chieftain had drawn his curved sword as well and was proficiently fending off another mass of black sand.
The Old Things reached her in a second, swirling up into the air, lifted by the mass of sand. She crouched low as a blast of wind threatened to knock her off her feet. As the group surrounded her, she charged forward, slicing wildly. This was not a fight for control. She needed to survive. She needed to get to Tajani. Her sword cut through bodies of dark sand, and she pushed through their crumbling forms, escaping the circle.
By now, the Old Things had fully escaped from the doors, and the overall howl of wind was calming down, but there were still far too many dark figures whipping up the ash and dust in the chamber. She could hardly think about the number of monsters now pouring out of the Gate, so close to Sha-Mikat. She ducked around several more that rose up out of the ground and swung their whirlwind limbs at her, shouting for Tajani. Her words were lost in the din.
Across the hall, she saw Jamitayyin slice through a line of Old Things that disappeared in a puff of darkness, giving him a momentary respite. It was at that moment that all of the dark shapes dispersed. At once, the sand and darkness pulled back, the wind rushing out further into the chamber. Qela turned to see them backing up, reforming into a churning mass of shadow. Qela rushed towards Tajani. She could see that her mentor was bruised and beaten, blood running down her face. At her age, she could easily be close to death.
Jamitayyin noticed the withdrawing forces and raised his sword in triumph. Qela saw the pile of skeletons behind him erupt, and a blade sprouted through his chest.
“No!” she shouted as she saw a fully formed skeleton rise out of the mass, a rusted blade clutched in its hand. She saw, swirling in the skull and all across the fragile bones, a mass of black sand.
Jamitayyin’s blade clattered to the ground. His knees crumbled, and the skeleton crudely wrenched its sword out of him as the chieftain of the Bkhanif fell to the ground in a pool of blood.
The wind shifted directions again, rushing back towards them, and Qela saw sheets of black sand snaking across the floor. The bones littering the ground twitched and began to pull together, and in seconds skeletons, animated by the Old Things, began shambling towards her. The skeleton, blade coated in Jamitayyin’s blood, towered over Tajani and raised its arm.
Light vanished for Qela. In an instant she released her Stories, the power she had built up, the books she had burned and the sins she had committed. She did not tell a Story, or if she did she did not hear or understand the words. But the wind died, and the force of her anger and her fear pulsed out. Wave after wave of pure force silently rolled through the cavern, Qela in the center of it, screaming, her eyes shut. She felt the bones shatter against her Stories, the sand scattered, the things pushed back. The skeleton over Tajani evaporated, the sand blasted through the empty door.
Qela opened her eyes after a moment of silence. Tajani was staring at her. Qela picked up her sword, feeling the sand shifting under her feet, and rushed over to her mentor.
Tajani pulled herself onto her feet with a wince, and when Qela arrived she put an arm around the younger woman’s shoulder. Qela easily took her weight.
“I’m sorry, Tajani,” she said. She could still hear wind screaming far off.
“No,” Tajani said, voice weak. “I’m sorry.”
Qela saw the bones laying on the ground starting to quiver again. Rusted weapons emerged from the dust and found themselves clenched in skeletal hands coated in black sand.
“Through the door,” Tajani said, pointing to the door that she had opened.
“Where they came from?”Qela asked incredulously.
With a grunt Qela turned and stumbled through the door, Tajani’s arm over her shoulders. She turned, and just as the wind came rushing back and shapes began to emerge out of the darkness, she slammed it shut.
They were silent for a long while.
Kalem sliced through an arm of darkness, his blade held out, arms shaking. Much of their guard had fallen, but Shilna pushed on. They were at the threshold of the Gate now, and a sea of Old Things loomed over them.
“My friend,” he said as they drew closer. “I think this will be the end of us.” An arrow, formed from shadow, streaked out of the darkness and slammed against the shield of the closest soldier, causing Kalem to jump.
Shilna shaded her eyes, peering up onto a hill behind the army of Old Things. Were those skeletons? Wielding longbows? Kalem saw them draw a volley, arrows of darkness forming into the drawn strongs. “Men who say such things are destined to make them come true,” Shilna said.
“What in the Wisdom of God does that mean?” Kalem asked, but Shilna did not respond. Instead she barked an order to charge, and their meager company slammed against the line of shadow. Kalem looked up and saw that they were pushing into the Gate, bound for the inside of the Court itself.
“Hello there?” A timid voice startled Qela and Tajani. They jumped up from their place on the stone ground. It was dark around them, the light dimmer, and Qela saw no-one.
“Over here? Hello?” The voice was thin, but it carried throughout the space. It didn’t sound quite right, as though it was too musical, too rehearsed. Qela spun around and saw a tall thin wisp of a figure standing by the doors that she had shut. It was blue and faintly glowing, and though it was clearly humanoid, it was made of thin, unfinished lines and shapes.
She drew her blade. “Who are you?”
“Hello?” It said, retreating from the point of her sword. “We are poets, spirit touched? We helped keep them out?” It raised a faint suggestion of a hand towards the door. Qela noticed a line of glowing runes carved into the stone that haden’t been there before. A force suddenly slammed against it from the other side, shaking the walls. The runes glowed brighter. “It will not hold them forever?”
“Will it?” Qela asked, confused.
“It will not?” the poet said. “But we will help you know? Follow?” Qela lowered her sword as it slowly began to drift away, deeper into whatever room they were in. She crouched down and helped Tajani up onto her feet, arm around her shoulder. They shuffled after the spirit as another wave of force shook the doors. “Where are we going?” Qela shouted after it.
“Not too far? Just to the throne?” the sing-song voice called back.
Tajani’s eyes widened at that. She called out, “And do you have a name, kind poet?”
It stopped before them, floating slightly in the air. “We are Noq?” they heard it say. “We are old? Older than you? We remember when the doors were still open?” It began to drift again. “Follow?”
Qela glanced at Tajani, but the older woman was nearly unreadable, especially with the battering her face had taken. They continued. Indeed they did not travel far when Noq stopped again. They could still hear the pounding of the Old Things against the door behind them, and each time the walls shook Qela tensed, preparing for battle once again.
Noq began to glow more brightly, the blue shine washing over a shape standing before them, solitary in the expanse of this place. “We waited a long time, hiding from them? They were trapped inside, so they killed all they could find?” The glow increased. “But we were clever, and we waited for them to leave? Now we are the only one that’s left?”
“The only one left?” Tajani asked, pulling Qela’s arm off her and stumbling forward. “What about-”
The light cast over what Qela now saw was a throne. It was humble, but still somehow grand, carved out of the natural rock of the Court that formed the wall behind it. Rotted tables and carpets littered the ground around it, as though tossed aside by violent winds and sandstorms. In the throne was a figure. Stately, tall, in simple robes that still flowed more beautifully than anything Qela had ever seen. The form was leaned against the back of the throne, hands clasping the edges of the arm rests. Long white hair trailed down from the head. The skin had shriveled away, and, staring forward, one eye was empty. From the other sprouted an arrow, formed from darkness, that pinned the head up to the stone behind it. He was dead.
“No,” Tajani said. She was quiet. She clasped her hands in prayer. “No, no, no, no, he was safe in here, he retreated, he thought all mortals wicked so he retreated, no, no, no...”
Qela fell to her knees. She felt the dust under her fingers. She could hear Tajani continue to mutter.
“No, we proved him wrong, didn’t we? We proved our worth, our faith, we opened the Gate! We opened it ourselves! We’re not wicked! We proved him wrong, our faith was strong!” She stood up, wavering and unsteady. She leveled a finger at Noq, who floated, unmoving. “You liar! Where is he? Where is God? Tell us. Now!”
The poet’s glow faded slightly, as though ashamed. “Yongit was brave to sacrifice himself? He was brave to seal all of us in here with the enemy, to protect your kind from them forevermore?”
Qela was numb. She did nothing as Tajani stumbled forward, inept fists swinging through the incorporeal form of Noq. “Where is he?” she screamed. She fell through Noq, landing on the stone at the base of the throne. “No, no no no no no…”
Qela stared at the empty eyes of God. At the arrow, made of shadow-stuff, that had taken his life. “Tajani,” she called. The older woman ignored her. “Tajani,” she said, standing and walking forward. “He wasn’t the one who was wrong. We were.”
Tajani crawled towards Yongit’s feet, scraping her fingernails against the stone. “We were faithful! We were strong! We believed when our people’s faith faltered! Yongit! Save us! I have given you my worth! My life!” She fell into a heap, her energy spent, her breathing erratic. Qela crouched down next to her.
The walls shook, and far off, she heard the doors burst open. Wind shrieked inside, and Noq grew animated, swirling towards them. “Time is done, mortals? Doors are open once again?” Qela drew her sword. There was sand in the scabbard that scraped against the metal, screaming with the wind. She heard bones clacking, heard the violence approaching. So this is where she would die. At the feet of her dead god.
Noq floated up into the air. “We cannot fight, young one? We are sorry? The doors will not close again?”
She looked to the door. Just inside was a line of skeletons, the skulls cracked and stuffed with sand. They raised up a volley of longbows, drawing the crackling ancient strings back towards their shoulders. The shadows drew in around them, forming into thin, black arrows. Qela raised her sword. The skeletons released. There was a howling in the wind, and the world was dark.