Upon the Pale Sands

by Zac Haluza

The storm roared through a bottomless mouth. Sand tore through the city square and rattled over cracked stones. Squinting, Saul drew his hood low. His flesh burned with sick fire. He pushed on, ignoring the blisters in his feet, toward the doorway fading in and out of sight ahead.

From far away this city had looked like salvation. But dread clawed at Saul when he passed those empty towers peering above the walls like dead eyes. The shattered portcullis lay behind him now. Looking upon the empty plaza and the torrents of sand that whipped through it, Saul could no longer fight the despair that rose inside his gut.

Yet despite his doubts and fears he pressed on. He focused on the open door ahead, flickering in and out of the storm. The promise of shelter.

And at once the wind no longer clawed at his flesh. The storm still howled all around him, but the sand’s assault had ceased. He lowered his arm. A wall stood before him. He reached out and touched the rough masonry. This was not a dream.

The doorway was mere paces away. It gaped from within the wall; within it he saw only darkness. Shreds of wood clung to the door’s rusted hinges.

A low whir filled Saul’s head. He felt his knees give way, and he clutched at the wall. Fire raced through his hand as the ragged bricks raked his flesh.

The wind changed direction, and he felt the sand’s bite once more. The wall no longer shielded him from the storm. He gazed into the doorway. To his fevered brain the opening seemed to tremble. The wall was rotting away, and darkness grew to consume all. He stepped into the doorway and crumbled.

You swore…

The sweet aroma of incense crept over him. Saul smiled. Harvest season had come.

Merchants and peddlers filled Lienon’s market square. Citizens dressed in bright tunics and animal skins flitted eagerly toward the stands. The men hawked pastries, fresh fruit and scrolls that would ward off baldness and poverty. Saul savored the crisp air as he walked. Gray smoke leaked from the massive censers mounted high above the street. It was there that the kalia leaf was burned.

But in moments a new scent mingled with the perfumed autumn air. Searing, ugly. A yellow glow flickered at the edge of Saul’s vision. He scowled. A strange heat kissed his flesh. He turned, searching for the source of the smell. In moments he found it.

The fountain was ablaze. Flames poured from the mouth of the marble elk mounted atop the structure’s base. The red tongues licked greedily at the street. Saul watched the inferno leap to a kite merchant’s stand.

A gust swept through the market, and burning leaves soared through the air. Saul blinked away hot tears. Kites that trailed fire and smoke swept down from the sky like hellish birds of prey. One of the blazing missiles crashed into a young boy. The child crumpled to the ground, motionless as flames bathed his body.

The ground shook, and from behind Saul came an unearthly howl. He whirled around. He watched, paralyzed, as the censer plummeted toward him.

“The fever has left you.”

A shock raced through Saul’s heart. He opened his eyes and squinted at the harsh light. Below him he felt a stiff bed or mat. He was lying down. The walls were the color of the desert. Dust glistened within the rays of sunlight that streamed from outside. A familiar smell wafted through the air.

“Your strength is returning. Good.”

The stranger at the doorway wore a white mask that covered all but his eyes. His voice issued from the pair of thin strips carved into its bottom. Two red lines rimmed the mask, weaving through one another in delicate strokes. The man approached Saul with footsteps as soft as whispers. He placed a tray on the table beside Saul.

The thick, almost forgotten smells of sustenance dispelled the last remnants of sleep from Saul’s mind. He rose from his mat and crossed his legs. Steam billowed from the ceramic bowl and cup upon the tray.

“Wet your throat before you eat,” the stranger said, gesturing to the cup.

Saul’s deep thirst smothered any thoughts of caution. Saul raised the cup to his nose and drew a deep breath. The kiss of kalia carried him back to a distant past. His lips curled in a wistful smile as scenes of Lienon at harvest swept through his mind’s eye. He sipped from the cup. He could almost touch the leaves as they fell.

But new shades soon bled into those memories. Autumn colors; orange, gold, deep crimson. He could only watch helplessly as the flames spread and raged. The city was burning.

“Eat.” The man gestured to the bowl of pale gruel. “A starving man has no need for etiquette.”

Saul shook those visions from his head. He began to eat. The porridge was flavorless, but this meant nothing to his gnawing hunger. When he set the spoon back into the bowl, only watery bits of grain were left.

Again he drank from his cup. Dark, accusing faces shimmered within the tea’s rippling surface. A dagger twisted in Saul’s side as he recalled the trial.

“The tea is to your liking?”

With a start, Saul found himself nodding. He watched the dark leaves swirling within the cup. The twisted features evaporated. And inside him a weight vanished.

“Is this kalia leaf?”

The stranger dipped his head in a slow nod. “An acquaintance introduced me to the herb years ago.” He spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Alas, the last of my personal stock now floats inside your cup.”

Suspicions brewed within Saul’s mind, dark and prodding.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Duln,” the man said with a hint of amusement. He pressed his palms together and rested his fingertips against the mask. “This city, my home, is called Renmere.”

The name sent ripples through Saul’s memory. He thought back to the hand-drawn map that covered the largest wall of his study. Was Renmere one of the countless cities that dotted the long strip of canvas? Or did it lie beyond the map’s limits, somewhere past the unmarked expanse of the Pale Desert?

“This city…is it beyond the desert?”

Duln stared back, unblinking. “Dusk falls within the hour. You will leave my home before sunrise.”

By the time Saul comprehended the meaning of his host’s words, Duln already stood at the doorway.

“Have patience, Saul. You will find what you seek within this place.”

The man left the room like a shadow. A sudden emptiness filled the room. Saul knew this hollow feeling. He had felt it in the first moments of his exile, as he watched the caravan vanish over the white horizon. With a start, Saul sprung from the mat.

He darted through the doorway and found himself standing in a small hall. The only exit was a narrow and spiraling staircase. He did not stop running. A sliver of daylight shone through the door at the foot of the stairs. Saul dashed toward it, ignoring the fire in his legs. He would not stop until he found the masked man.

Saul stepped through the doorway and into the barren square. A breath of wind caressed his face. His eyes searched the plaza. Statues littered the edges of the square. There was no sign of Duln; even the sand that littered the ground was bare of footprints.

His gaze lingered on a distant group of sculptures. The towering gray figures huddled together as if deep in counsel. But it was their eyes that disturbed him. They were cold, unfeeling, and aimed directly at the doorway.

Instinct told him that Duln was lurking at the edges of the square. Saul tensed, ready to charge across the dusty plaza. But he stopped himself before urge became motion.

He still remembered. It was instinct that had blinded him to the council’s trap. And his recklessness had only led him deeper into it. Clenching his hands into fists, Saul turned back. He would not again let himself surrender to rash impulse.

A tower loomed above him, dark and solemn against the deepening sky. Without its mantle of swirling sand, Saul barely recognized the building he had emerged from. With slow and defeated steps he returned to the stairs.

Saul leaned against the sole window at the top of the tower. He watched the night descend upon Renmere. The sun hung swollen over an ocean of scarred rooftops. He turned his gaze south, where the ramparts of the city wall stood like fangs. Beyond the wall was endless sand. The Pale Desert stretched to the horizon and into a past Saul wished he could tear from his memory.

Wind whispered against the tower. Loose drifting sand scraped the walls below like dry hands. Saul remained at the window. As he quenched his thirst with cold and bitter tea he peered at the piece of cloth that lay upon the sleeping mat. It had torn from the inside of his cloak as he had wandered the desert, yet he could not summon the strength to part with it. Woven into the azure linen was a golden phoenix. The crest of Lienon.

The sun sank below the city wall. His neck tingled with electric anticipation. Twilight passed, and a pale light fell upon the city. The desert sands shimmered with the glow of the stars and the twin moons.

In the ethereal sheen of the night Renmere was a ghost of a city. Long shadows stretched from the shadows across the plaza like the grynn of the old stories from his youth. This city had its own beasts, Saul thought.

At once the night darkened. He drew a deep breath. A dark fear haunted his sense of anticipation. The moons hid behind a shroud of thick clouds. A palpable shudder rustled through the tower. Saul hugged his robes and turned to the door. The path to the stairwell was blacker than pitch.

Only when he had stumbled onto the dim plaza did Saul stop running. Fireflies glittered before his eyes as he sucked greedily at the air. It was only after they had vanished that he truly saw the bright form hovering before him.

The glowing orb did not move. Saul gaped, and no matter how many times he told himself the light was a trick of the eye or his exhaustion, its white glow did not once dim. He realized that he was reaching toward the object.

The orb was cool against his skin, yet an odd warmth flowed through his fingers. His panic fell away like dead skin. He would find what he sought, just as Duln had said. The man could not hide for long.

Holding the globe before him, Saul approached the distant rows of statues. The lantern’s white aura shone over stones and marble. Those cold eyes above him shimmered with icy fire. He stopped before one figure bent upon an armored knee. Within the statue’s hands was a dagger; the tip pointed at Saul’s own heart. He moved closer, and a brooding fascination swirled in his breast.

A woman’s voice rustled like soft gossamer.

“You came from outside. From beyond the desert.”

Saul whirled around. The orb’s light rested upon a wispy figure. His heart pounded. No — it was not her. The lantern slipped from his hand with a whisper; it drifted to the woman’s palm. In the light Saul saw a face too young for the anguish written upon it.

“Is this a dream?”

She watched Saul with an acute and almost desperate intent. “I watched you struggle through the storm. You were weak, a blade of grass withering in the sand. Yet still you fight.”

Pangs of desire, soured with regret and guilt, burned within Saul’s heart. With gritted teeth he forced those thoughts away. This was not the woman he had pledged his life to. That part of his life had ended, with vows and lives shattered alike.

“Come. Your path has not reached its end.”

The woman led him beyond the statues and into a long avenue. Questions flitted through his mind only to die on his lips. At last one escaped.

“Why is the city empty?”

The woman tilted her head as though she had heard him, but she made no response. The orb drifted before her as she walked. Saul followed, scrambling at times to follow her pace. If nothing else, it was the fear of losing this guiding light that propelled him.

The woman slowed, and Saul lifted his eyes. It felt as though he had awakened from a long slumber. The city wall towered before them. The orb’s watery light danced over the stones. No words came to him. Feeling helpless, he looked over at the woman.

“Open it,” she said.

Saul’s heart raced as he searched the dim form of the wall for a hidden door, a lever, anything that could help him fulfill this woman’s command. He found nothing.

“Follow the animus,” the woman said patiently. The lantern drifted closer to the wall. “Do you see it now?”

Cautiously Saul began to nod. Now he could see the thick seam that rose from the wall’s base. It cut a jagged path through the stone, stretching into unlit heights above. He placed his hand over the crack. A faint trembling issued from deep within the stone.

“Now open it,” the woman said in a low and urgent voice.

She rested her hand on Saul’s shoulder. Fire raced through his flesh. He shut his eyes, and he was no longer standing in this dark and dusty city. He knew this touch.

An intense heat flared through Saul’s palms, and he cried out. He stumbled back and fell to his knees.

His hands throbbed, but no wounds marked them. The light from the orb — animus was what the woman had called it — still shimmered over the wall. But the wall…

A dark hole had opened before Saul, as though a giant had carved it into the stone.

“Is this my doing?”

The woman did not answer. Saul turned. The dark streets and alleys were bare of life. The animus’s light flickered over buildings with rotted doors and shutters. The woman’s form lingered in the shadows and at the edges of the light. Saul cried out until his throat was hoarse. But it was her name that he yelled.

The air had grown cold. Saul held the animus against his chest. He felt a warmth spreading through his soul, like the presence of a dear companion. He held the orb toward the opening, and the outline of a deep stairway emerged from the blackness.

A moan issued from deep within the city. Saul felt his muscles seize. The sound seemed to seep from the ground itself, as if the earth itself were in pain. There was more to Renmere than the ruined skeleton of a city he had viewed at sunset.

Saul peered into the opening. The woman had led him here for a reason. He was certain of this.

“Your path has not yet reached its end,” he murmured.

As he descended the thick stone steps, the groaning outside shrank to a soft murmur. Light and shadow mingled over tall and ancient walls. Saul was left with the glowing animus and with his memories.

Orlo the Old. The name soared out from a past that felt lifetimes away. Wrinkles had knotted the man’s face and hands like an ancient oak. Saul could still hear Orlo’s brassy croak of a voice, tempered from years of smoke and drink. He remembered the stories the aged raconteur had woven in the market as he sipped from his jug of wine.

The old man had told tales of ancient cities, of labyrinths filled with mountains of bones. Of heroes who rid the land of evil at any cost. As he listened to the Orlo’s stories of adventures and conquests, Saul had grinned, grasping the small dagger he had found inside his father’s desk.

But now Saul sneered bitterly. Those stories rang hollow. His hands were almost as withered as those of the gnarled old man in his memories. They were not the hands of a warrior. This exiled hero had no glory. He had no quest.

As his shoes whispered against the steps, Saul peered over his shoulder. The opening above had vanished into the darkness. He saw nothing save for the gray halo issuing from the animus.

Perhaps he was meant to have perished in the desert. A delirious thought came to Saul: he had never left those pale sands. His lips moved, and he heard himself recite a verse from the Drunkard’s Chronicles.

“In death he saw the face of man,

A mask through which he lived again.”

He lowered himself to the stairs, his swollen joints popping like firecrackers, and he peered into the animus. Bright specks, each no larger than a mote of dust, swirled around the orb’s glowing center. They traced abstract paths around one another, like stars dancing. There was a silent beauty in it.

Saul leaned closer to the globe until his nose almost touched the surface. Two bright and sorrowful eyes were watching him from within. Eyes he had promised he would not forget.

“I wronged you, I know,” he whispered. “And I’ve suffered enough for it.”

The motes swirled at the sound of his voice. And those eyes were no more.

He slipped the animus into the crook of his arm. A low growl rumbled from within his stomach, and he thought back to the pack of flatbread that the caravan guard had slipped him. It had lasted for three days, perhaps four. He could not remember how much more time had passed until the walls of Renmere had risen from the horizon.

Saul raised his hand to wipe his brow, and an odd feeling forced him to stop. His sweat was cool.

The hairs on his arms and neck prickling, he rose to his feet. As he continued his descent a new vigor seized him, hot and eager. The walls shimmered with each breath he took. At the sight of the wide silhouette flickering below he bowed his head in blissful relief.

“Thank you.”

The archway stretched before him in mute welcome. As he saw the room that lay beyond, he halted. The animus slipped from his hand; it rattled softly against the stone floor.

Lienon’s council chamber would have easily fit inside this room twenty times over. Saul bent and reached for the orb, but he realized that it made no difference. Inside this gaping room the animus’s glow suddenly seemed pitiful. Shafts of light streamed through unseen apertures above, like bright wounds sliced into the damp air.

But it was the glittering pool that he set his eyes upon. Old verses of the Crystal Sea’s cold beauty entered his thoughts unbidden. The water stretched from wall to wall like hammered glass. It was still, unmoved by the cool draft that flowed from deeper within the room. He approached the edge of the pool. His pulse beat against his temples.

Spanning the pool was a narrow bridge paved with glistening stones. Saul tucked the animus into a pocket inside his robe. His arms ached with sweet relief. The light that poured from above was indeed more than ample.

A faint whine came from the distance, like wet fingers rubbed over the strings of a zither. Saul gazed into the pool’s crystal surface. He saw no hint of its bottom. The droning continued, and he felt an odd tugging sensation deep inside his head.

He stepped onto the bridge, and the sound transformed. It bent and warped into a slow, lilting melody. The music was coming from below, he realized. The water was singing to him.

Saul’s heart leapt in anticipation of each successive note. He knew this song. He stepped through one of the vast beams of light that struck the bridge, and his legs no longer moved. Those three delicate syllables flashed through his mind. Ilena.

It was her song that drifted from the water. Her voice, distorted through liquid and glass and all the many years that had passed since that first spring night, when he had heard the young woman’s delicate voice floating over the river shore.

He shut his eyes, and candlelight danced before him. Shadows flickered over the wall. Warm currents of perfume drifted over him like gentle rain. Ilena’s lithe form stretched and curled upon the bed. Hunger stirred within him, and he lunged at his wife. His flesh met hers. Fire roared through his body.

But his arms closed around brittle cloth. Saul sprung from the bed. Draped across the mattress was a white shroud. His fingers trembled as he caressed the cloth. It felt colder than death.

You returned. After all your vows, all your lies, you came back.

A thin silhouette stood before the window. The twilight draped Ilena in an ashen glow. Her eyes glistened.

You swore that you would die before you left me. She reached for Saul. Moonlight illuminated the dark gashes marred her pale skin.

“I know,” came Saul’s defeated whisper.

Come closer.

He did, and he held his hands out to her. Gently his wife shook her head, and he saw the sunken depression in the back of her skull. Ilena bared a bittersweet smile that Saul knew only too well. In it he saw only regret.

With a whisper Ilena vanished through the window.

The walls shook with Saul’s anguished howls. He bolted to the window. The twin daggers of the crescent moons sliced through the midnight sky. He peered down into the rocky gorge at the foot of his estate, knowing and fearing what he would find there.

His knees met the surface of the bridge with a sharp crack. Ilena’s song still rang from the water. Saul kept his eyes shut and let the music engulf him. He had no need for anything else.

“If only you could see how weak you are.”

Firm hands gripped Saul. He fought and tried to tear himself away from hands that clutched like iron, but their grip on his arms only tightened. The robed figure dragged him along the bridge.

The melody was disintegrating at its seams, sliding into harsh intervals. Saul could no longer recognize Ilena’s voice. His breath came in low, rattling gasps. He had nothing left to embrace.

“Walk, damn you,” Duln snarled, and hauled Saul across the bridge in silence.

At once the floor widened, and Saul collapsed to the ground. Duln seated himself upon a smooth chair made of stone. Trembling, Saul gazed at the masked figure. He had found the man he sought.

Saul searched for the blind urge that had guided him over sand and stone, the force that had propelled him across the Pale Desert even as thirst and hunger gnawed at his very bones. In its place he found only a void.

He knew he should have let the sands take him. This city was cursed; it lay beyond life and death. Saul sneered. Ilena had believed in fate. Until now, he never had.

“Leave me here,” he growled.

Duln leaned toward Saul. The animus now floated before the man; a sickly glare emanated from it.

“For centuries I have watched the sun rise and set upon this city’s walls. I am weary.”

The masked man gazed at Saul with something that may have been hope. Then he shook his head. “You do not understand.”

“I know enough,” Saul spat. “I was led here to die.”

Duln clicked his tongue. He caressed the orb, and his voice softened. “Do you remember a man named Kress? He was one of your countrymen.”

The name was familiar in a distant way, in a way that meant nothing to Saul. In his time as councilor he had encountered more names than there were stars in the night sky. Kress, Kyrill, Kerass — they were blots of ink on paper, nothing more.

“I have no memory of the man.”

“Kress entered the desert by his own will. Unlike you. He and ten others had intended to map the southern extent of the sands. The storms ravaged their camp only days into the expedition. His companions perished. But even at the brink of death, Kress held on.”

Now Saul remembered. The expedition had begun weeks after his own appointment to the council. Amnir Tal had reached deep into the city’s coffers to finance the venture, one that the other councilors had called an exercise in futility. The Pale Desert was not a place from which one returned, they had said.

Duln began speaking with long and melodic cadences, as though savoring each word.

“A group of nomads discarded Kress’s body at the city wall. I spent weeks in the man’s company, helping him compile charts from the records deep within the city’s archives. But soon Kress began to long for home. When he lost the will to continue, I had no other choice.”

Years spent matching wits with his fellow councilors had taught Saul that there were no such things as idle words. The strange lamp flared, as if urging him toward the truth.

And it came to him.

“Renmere perished long ago.”

He had learned of the place during his studies at the Academy. But Renmere was no more than a name tucked among hundreds of obscure and half-forgotten territories. It was name destined to be forgotten.

A low, mourning tone overcame Duln’s voice.

“The others fled the city when the sandstorms came. I gave my body to the sands.” Black embers flared behind his mask. “But this withered state requires sustenance.”

The man grasped the animus. Its aura weakened to a wan glow. At once Saul wanted to vomit.

“I extracted a fragment of your soul while you slept. It was this seed that I planted inside this animus. As you struggled and persisted through the city above, it grew stronger. It gave me life.”

Saul shuddered. He felt a hollow growing inside his chest. The sensation horrified him. He coughed, a sound like tearing paper.

“But in the end you forsook hope. You clung to your sorrow. And you became weak. Your memories are strong, Saul. Do you realize this?”

The walls, ceiling — the entire room — were melting, reshaping themselves like clay. Saul looked upon the stone halls that he had once called his home. He smelled burning oil and bound leather.

“I know of the council’s deceit, Saul,” Duln said, and Saul had no reason to doubt him. “Your crime was blind ambition. Nothing more.”

The council stood behind the masked man. They peered through a veil of shadows.

“I deserved none of it,” Saul whispered.

The man looked at him with solemn eyes. “I can return to you the one who you lost.”

Saul sighed as those delicate hands once again rested upon his shoulders. Golden warmth dripped from her fingertips and filled the hollow inside him. Saul realized that he would never leave this city. But at her touch these thoughts faded. She was enough.

“Answer me, and Ilena will again be yours.” Duln’s eyes narrowed. “Resist and you will beg for death. I will not grant it.”

Unseen nails dug into Saul’s heart. He writhed against the ground, and a guttural moan escaped his lungs. But as Ilena stroked his chest his agony faded to a faint scratching.

“Answer, and you will always have her,” Duln soothed.

The animus pulsed with light. Saul saw Ilena’s stomach rise and fall beside him. The sheet clung to her glistening body like gossamer. His heart rose. This was what he desired.

You swore.

Guilt flooded Saul. He knew this was not the woman he had promised his life to. She was nothing more than a memory. Straining against bones more brittle than clay, he rose.

“Forgive me,” he whispered.

Saul lunged for the animus, and he hurled it against the floor. Shimmering glass spilled across the stones. A shriek erupted from the ground. Saul fell to his knees, clenching his ears. A river of color flowed over the floor, white and crimson and azure.

Sudden pain exploded across his face. Blood oozed from his nose, and he looked up to see Duln looming before him. A foul hatred burned through the mask.

“You will suffer far more than I ever have,” Duln snarled. The man staggered from his chair. He reached for Saul with gnarled hands.

Saul scrambled over the floor. He snatched one of the shards glittering on the ground. It was harder than glass, and it pulsed in his hand. He aimed its sharp edge toward Duln’s heart. And he lunged.

Darkness came and passed. A soft wind stirred Saul, and he opened his eyes. The moons gaped down at him. He saw the pockmarked face of old Osen, and the flawless pearl-like surface known only as Eln. Surrounding them was a boundless mantle of stars.

Saul coughed, shuddering with each hacking fit. Drops of blood flecked the desert floor. They gleamed black against the pale sand. He shut his eyes, and the accusing gazes of the council leapt up before him.

“Leave me,” he moaned. He turned onto his side, wincing at the fire that seared his flesh. He looked up into the night sky, and those faces faded into the stars.

A long, thin crescent gleamed upon the sand. A dark liquid stained its pointed edge. Saul smiled weakly. A long shadow fell across the shard, and a soft voice followed.

“Rest now. You have struggled enough.”

Her footsteps drew nearer. Moments later those gentle arms cradled his head.

“The time for fear and suffering has passed,” Ilena cooed. She stroked his brow, and the fever seeped from his skin. “Close your eyes, my darling.”

As Saul smiled in silent bliss, Ilena began to sing.

The End