The Razor's Edge

The Fire of Ashurbanipal

For a long moment she basked in the rays that spilled through the windows of the inn. The golden light bathed her, and she experienced it’s warmth, luxuriated in the radiant beams of morning light. It would be easy to sleep late, to linger in the languid sunlight. But then her attention shifted. As she focused on the shafts of light that filtered through the open windows, she thought of the walls of the great temple that the Grand Kalif, Ashurbanipal the Great, had commissioned. There dozens of artists from throughout the land were brought to Pazar to carve the god of the sun, his thousand arms descending down from the solar eye, each tipped with a calming flaming hand to bless his supplicants below. Of course she knew every stone of the temple, she had travelled up the stairs and hurried down the illuminated corridors every day of her life since she had come here.

She had long served the goddess, who was the consort of the sun. Sekmet was the great winged lioness of the desert, who bore the orb of light across the skies. She too was depicted upon the walls of the temple, carved into the living stone.

As her reverie mingled with the realities of morning, slowly she began to take in her surroundings, and some bothersome thought that had from the moment that she awoke, half consciously been murmuring to her that something was wrong, something was very wrong, transformed from a mumur to a roar.

She had no idea where she was.

She knew she must be far, far from home, for she had no recognition of her surroundings—none at all. Even the nature of this architecture was foreign to her! The walls of this Inn were fashioned of wood.

There was nothing like this in all of Pazar! Not even in Khemet!

She left her bed and studied the quarters in which she found herself. Wood floors, wood tables, aging tapestry. There was a backpack half open laying against a desk that did not belong to her. She slowly crossed the room to the open windows and stood, mouth agape, as she studied the street and the buildings beyond. This was not Pazar. There were dogs barking outside, the breed of which she had never before seen, and children playing with glass beads in the street, wearing strange costumes unlike those of her people. And no cats, not one, could she see in the streets. Images collided and made little sense. She reeled back and took hold of one of the sturdy bedposts to steady herself as she adapted to these new surroundings. She was a priestess of Sekmet after all. She calmed herself, bringing all of her knowledge and intuition to bear upon this situation in which she had found herself, and began to focus on what she knew.

“I must not fear,” she repeated to herself. Her fingers played upon the tashib she wore, counting the prayer beads of her necklace without thinking as she continued her prayer, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

As the magic of the litany against fear that she intoned swelled within her, she looked back with her inner eye where things were once, but no longer. The place of memory.

In her mind’s eye the city grew up from the dense shrubbery and verdant trees on the lush Island in the River Athis that flowed from the Fountain of Athis near the pyramid of Amun-Re. The buildings were all constructed of the most beautiful white limestone, cut from the bedrock of the island. Constructed of huge blocks of white stone, the towers of Pazar reached up to touch the stars. She recognized the constellations, silently naming them, and the course of the moons through the houses of heaven.

It was night, and she was alone, but she was unafraid. There was nothing to fear traveling the streets of Pazar. The same magic that had imprisoned Kalithárius had brought peace to the city. For no creature under the eye of the sun, or indeed of his sister the moon, could commit violence in the streets of Pazar, or indeed in all of Khemet! The archmage Martek had seen to that! In Pazar the Suloise, or even those Teufél or Drakeîn that resided there, maintained a peaceful coexistence. Though wars may rage elsewhere, Khemet remained a sanctuary, a peaceful oasis in the war, famed for its miraculous natural flowers and lush vegetation. Pazar was the last, best hope in forging a peace between the warring factions of the Teufél and Drakeîn.

The polished stone of the towers reflected the light of the stars, and very soon would capture the first sliver of the morning sun.

It was for this that she had come to this place, to witness the dawn. For in no other city was the dawn so breathtaking as in the city of her birth. The sky that touched the eastern horizon slowly shifted from ebon, to purple to hues of red as dawn approached.

And then she saw it. There was a sparkle in the tallest of the towers, the great Tower of Ashurbanipal, hewn from the blackest onyx, and imported from the distant Hellfurnaces. The sparkle grew into a shimmering light bathing the city in sparks of scarlet hues, reflected from the first rays of sunlight as the sun was again reborn and the goddess once again began her journey skyward, bearing the orb of the sun into the heavens. This was the Fire of Ashurbanipal. The most holy of relics, the greatest treasure in the realm. The blood of the goddess, preserved as a perfect crystal shard. The priesthood had long been pledged to protect it.

It was her sacred duty!

She knelt before the aspect of the goddess that hung like a vast mirage above the city, gazing down upon its ancient towers. She knelt down and she prayed. She thanked the goddess that she could be here, in this place, at this time, where amid the insanity of war a real and palpable peace might be fashioned. For there was no other city like Pazar. No other place in the world were men were forced to seek the alternative to violence since bloodshed here, was simply impossible. Here the ambassadors to warring nations worked to forge and end to the war that had already devastated the lands. The northlands, the lands of the Drakeîn had suffered terribly. The Teufél had sought dark alliances, with terrible creatures of darkness, infernal creatures from the abyss. The gods had marked them for their folly, and yet they persisted. They were no longer men. The Drakeîn had never been men. It was up to the Sulois to forge this peace among warring nations before the world was destroyed. And the prophecies maintained that it would be. Again and again. Her order was dedicated to strengthening the single thread of action that might avert this apocalypse.

And then it came.

Softly, almost imperceptibly, as a great cat stalking its prey, silent footfalls upon the sand, but then grew. She felt a sensation of falling inside her as the land shifted. People around her ran, fell to the ground, screamed as the earth rumbled, vibrated and bucked with a deafening roar. Saints and sinners fell to the ground and prayed their souls might be spared. To the prophets, it seemed that the end of the age, long prophesied by the Drakeîn upon their copper plates, was near.

And it was.

From the north storm clouds gathered.

The storm was fast approaching and without warning the city was beset. The sky churned and roiled like a dying thing. Light from within and beyond the clouds flashed, though as yet no lightning bolts coursed their way downward from the sky. Only a strange colorless glow that backlit the storm as it descended upon Pazar. The strange glow gathered and grew in strength until at last a single brilliant rod of light shot down from the heavens to strike the Tower of Ashurbanipal, which exploded into a vast cloud of fire, dust and debris. From what was once a wonder of the world, the tallest tower known to civilization, thousands of great broken blocks, shattered stone, and sharp shards of black onyx, falling skyward and then raining down upon the city, crashing down into the stone structures, shattering the city with shards of obsidian glass.

As the tower ruptured and burst, amid the cacaphony of chaos, a single sparkle of scarlet light trailed across the heavens. She followed its course as it ascended and began to fall. Without thinking of herself she ran, gathering all of her energy, focusing all of her perception to track the course of the stone as it plummeted into the River Athis.

She muttered the words of a charm and plunged into the water, descending in pursuit of the glowing red stone as it tumbled down through the currents. She understood now what had brought her to this place, on this day, at this time. The goddess had assigned her this task: to protect the stone. She dove down until the waters of the river pressed hard against her. And there she found it, almost hidden by reeds at the bottom of the river. She gathered the stone into her hand, as only a woman, a priestess of the goddess might, and then rose to find the surface.

As her form crested the surface of the river, she opened her eyes in horror at what was befalling Pazar. A terrible rain of colorless fire—glowing droplets of flame, falling from the storm clouds that roiled and lashed against the tallest towers. The rain touched her skin and burned her. She gathered one final glimpse of her beloved city as she sought the protection of the currents. In her final vision, she watched the towers of Pazar shatter and fall as the rain of colorless fire razed the stone towers. The city was ablaze. People ran screaming as their hair and clothing burst into flame. She could see the shadows of cats against the flames, thousands of cats, for they were sacred in Pazar, leaping and whirling, climbing and clawing for shelter in a cacaphony of burning terror.

Beneath the waves, she remained strangely calm. Her tears were lost to the currents as she quietly wept and implored the goddess to protect the city.

At length she arose under the shelter of a stone bridge that crossed the river, and waited there as devastation rained down. Her fingers played upon the tashib she wore, counting the prayer beads of her necklace without thinking as she repeated the litany against fear again and again. She looked down and realized that aside from her vestments, it was her only possession of value that she had brought with her when she had stolen out into the night to witness the dawn.

Slowly the rain of fire became a rain of ash, that coated the city in an eternal blanket of grey. The sounds of destruction receded, and the cries of the terrified transformed into the moans of the dying, and then grew quiet. The city of Pazar was cloaked in grey silence.

She surveyed the ruins of Pazar, the burning trees, the flame scoured land, and understood that the city was dead, that Khemet was dead, and that life she had known was over. Despite her training the enormity of this overwhelmed her, and she understood that she too might learn to hate, now that they had taught her terror.

The voice within her told her to waste no time, to set out with the setting of the sun, to flee eastwards into the mountains. She made haste, finding her way through the burning ruins. A dense black cloud of ash blotted out the light, and the crowds of screaming people fleeing around her ran in terror, without purpose, with a destiny.

Only later, as an aging crone in her solitude in the Hellfurnaces would she learn the truth. What they called a war to end all wars had unleashed the most terrible of magics ever released. Historians would name it the Rain of Colorless Fire.

She learned that after the destruction of their own homeland the Drakeîn magi-priests of the Bakluni gathered within the stone circles of Tovag Baragu and had conjured a mighty working, bringing down the terrible Rain of Colorless Fire upon their enemies, the Teufél. She had recognized this terrible ritual magic for what it was. In fact the majority of her natural life was spent infiltrating the Drakeîn and stealing the ritual. Though the scroll could not be destroyed, such was the curse invoked upon the world that created the spell, it could be well hidden, though she knew there would be powerful entities that would search the nooks and crannies of the world in search of this ultimate power. What remained of her life was spent protecting the enchantment from discovery.

She herself had witnessed the terrible rain, which burned masters and slaves alike. The Teufél had used a lesser ritual against the Drakeîn. In righteous anger the Drakeîn unleashed the full fury of this enchantment upon the world. No one was spared. Not even the Sulois, the brokers of peace. The buildings were scortched, the land burned, even the rocks and soil to became ash, leaving the Sea of Dust as a monument to the hubris of war. The Drakeîn and the Teufél had been cursed by the gods for their folly, never again to know a homeland, to wander and to diminish as the other races thrived and multiplied.

She also heard rumors that the Sulois had constructed a new city deep in the forests, a momument to their past. According to the tales they had brought many of their secrets, all that remained, into this secret stronghold. She longed to visit the city, and spent many years searching for it. But her people had learned their lesson. There was a security in stealth. They became insular and avoided contact with all others at all costs. She wondered if they had preserved the secret of Pazar, and fashioned a city forged in peace. She doubted it. Her faith that mankind might ever truly understand a lasting peace had been shattered with the destruction of Pazar.

This realization brought her little comfort. Hope was kinder than truth.

Then, suddenly, she found herself standing alone in the Inn, a lifetime of memories flooding through her, filling her. She understood again that there was a reason that she was here, in this place, at this time. She opened her eyes and recoiled for a moment, unaware of the other presence until his reflection met her gaze. She turned to face him. And he turned to face her. He was more than a boy, but not yet a man. From his expression he was as surprised to see her as she to encounter him.

“I can help you.” he said. “But you will have to trust me.”

All of her training had brought her to this moment in time. At first glance this boy did not seem so trustworthy. Instinctively she understood that it was his nature to lie, and that in the course of his lifetime, deception had been perhaps his singularly defining characteristic. But there was more to this boy than that. As she listened to his words to the sound of his voice, to the inflection of his tone, and discerned the expression in his eyes, she sensed that his words were truthful. At least this time.

“What is your name?” The boy asked. He stood very still, staring deep into her eyes, seeking out the reflection of a soul.

“Shahrazád,” she answered, and she realized somehow that just perhaps it was the first time her name had been spoken aloud in a thousand years.

Comments

What a wonderful and enjoyable story! I hope there’s more to it…

The Fire of Ashurbanipal
Duane

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