The defile descended into shadow as the sun burned itself out along the broad horizon. We left the camels behind, secured within a circle of boulders. The hermit-priest of Sarenrae, Shaba Alemas, led our company by several paces, her coarse robe furrowing trails in the black and yellow dust. Two of the satrap's soldiers followed, casting nervous at the sky in fear of the great roc's return. Captain Najh came next, striding with a wary grace like a desert cat on the hunt. I—palace astrologer, sorcerer, and accused thief—shuffled along ignominiously at the rear. Najh watched me closely, lest I develop a sudden proclivity to flee the vicinity of Azzah's ancient tower and seek the safety of the night.
"Keep up, halfling," Najh hissed, "or we'll tie you up with the camels."
"Never fear, Captain, I'm right behind you."
In truth, I wanted Najh where I could see him. Unbeknownst to the captain, I had glimpsed the sign of the infamous Pierced Rose gang tattooed on his back. Pierced Rose brutes held sway in certain quarters of Katheer and certain disreputable caravanserai. Though renowned enforcers and thugs, they rarely operated in secret—which was extremely fortunate for us. In allowing me to see his tattoo, Najh had proved himself either careless or foolishly overconfident. Or both.
Without question, his main target was Shaba, the young pacifist priest whose splinter sect opposed the satrap's warmongering against Taldor. At the same time, however, I had no illusions that he would suffer any witnesses to live—I had stolen from the satrap's library, after all. No, the real question was why the satrap would employ a criminal rather than simply order our execution, or send us off into the desert on a fool's errand when a simple knife in the dark would do the work just as well. Then the answer came to me.
There were no other souls in the Ketz Desert to report that Shaba—or Kazzar the Astrologer, for that matter—had died in any other way than in service to the satrap and the Dawnflower. Shaba's people couldn't make her a rallying cry against the satrap and his militant allies in the church. It was clean. Simple.
It was also finished, as of that moment. I refused to die an unknown martyr to someone else's cause. It was not a destiny befitting one who was born under the watchful stars.
The narrow way of the defile twisted toward the tower, and Azzah's resting place finally loomed directly above us. The shallow walls of the track no longer shielded us from the roc's view, so I hoped Shaba was right when she'd deemed it blind. The vast bird still perched atop the tower, motionless against the dark iron sky. A slim rectangular opening, framed by eroding sandstone plinths, beckoned us forward into the eastern vestibule. The entrance had once been deeply inscribed with symbols sacred to the Sun Goddess and painted in vibrant shades of cobalt and yellow, but the desert had scoured all meaning from their surface. Shaba froze mere paces from the door.
"We stand in a sacred place," she whispered, lifting a hand to halt our progress.
Najh raised his head slowly and jerked his chin at the sky.
"The beast may be blind, but is it wise to tarry here, praying until it hears us?" he whispered back.
Shaba narrowed her eyes but said nothing in response. The skin of my neck again prickled, as if with the feet of sand-spiders. Boulders creaked as they cooled. Wind ruffled feathers as black as death high above our heads.
"Might we please just go inside?" I asked, unable to keep the panic from my voice.
Without another word, Shaba vanished into the darkness of the tower. The soldiers, with a final glance skyward, followed close on her heels. Najh spun and grabbed the loose fabric of my tunic, hauling me under the arch of the door.
"You have a part yet to play, Kazzar," he hissed.
"I can assure you I have every intention of seeing this enterprise through, Captain."
Najh smoothed the front of my tunic and gave a thin, reptilian smile, his brassy hair glinting with the first starlight of the evening.
"In that case, there may yet be a way to earn the Satrap's forgiveness for your crimes."
I choked down a retort about which of us might be burdened with the longer list of illicit deeds. Instead, I lied.
"As my Uncle Ilnario is fond of saying, 'No camel has two drivers.' I remain your man, but you must say what you expect from me."
Najh peered into the tower, then back at me.
"His Eminence is as interested in bringing Azzah's final words to Katheer as our rustic friend here. Should some sad fate befall her in that tower, Azzah's secrets must return with us."
I nodded agreeably for Najh's sake, though his meaning was as bright as the edge of a sword. Najh was indeed there to ensure Shaba's tragic fate.
We gathered in the gloom of the eastern vestibule of Azzah's Tower, where arches of sandstone swept upward to mosaics of colored glass and glinting gold, their panes no doubt warded by magic to have survived so many centuries unscathed. Scenes from Azzah's life intermingled with what I supposed were texts sacred to the Dawnflower, their scripture covering the walls. Several panels depicted historical eclipses, but I recognized the significance of little else. Azzah had appointed his tower as a vizier's, with aggrandizements of self woven into every arc and flute of its construction. I decided I liked the old fellow after all.
Shaba traced the outlines of one panel, disappointment muddying the usual fire of zealotry in her eyes. She wiped away layers of dull dust to reveal a colorful mosaic of Azzah receiving tribute from the generals of a surrendering army.
"All to the glory of Sarenrae," I chuckled, my words a bit harsher than I'd intended.
She ignored my jibe. "It's warm."
I ran my hand along the bottom edge of the scene and the patterned border of gold and black stones. The black chips radiated heat, almost enough to burn with prolonged contact on unprotected skin.
"Heatstone!" I exclaimed. "Your Azzah was a wealthy man, to use them for decoration like this. Lucky caravans sometimes have a few in the supply train for cold desert nights. I'd heard that they can sometimes be found in the Ketz Desert, but I had always thought they were mostly found in the garderobes of high nobility."
Her mouth quirked in another semblance of a smile, and her eyes shone with excitement. Sadly, it was not at my wit.
"Then it's here," she whispered.
Before I had a chance to ask what she meant, one of the soldiers lit a torch. The golden light chased away the gloom, reflected back in countless tiny mirrors and gilt sun disks. Najh studied a door opposite the entrance, one that led deeper into the tower. It was limned in gold and cobalt glass. He stepped around a chunk of fallen masonry and reached for the door.
"I'm going to secure the next chamber," he said.
"Do you think it's a good idea to go by yourself?" I replied. I didn't want him out of my sight.
Najh favored me with an unctuous smile.
"We must know how much of the interior of the tower stands, lest the roc observe us trooping into his aerie. As the expedition's scout, I've a duty to go."
"Touch nothing, Captain," Shaba warned. "This place is sanctified. It's also Azzah's grave."
Najh returned her admonition with insincere piety.
"I wouldn't dare, Shaba. What do you take me for, a thief?"
My fingertips ached with the fire I longed to call down upon Najh for that remark.
He vanished through the sun door, but his two goons remained, carrying torches and pretending to study the mosaics. Shaba approached an idol of Sarenrae and knelt before it. I wasn't sure how long Najh would be gone, so I followed Shaba and risked interrupting her prayer.
"They mean to kill you," I whispered.
"Fate has decreed that I walk with killers," she replied.
"We should walk away from them."
She shrugged. "You mean well, my friend. But I don't think it's my destiny to die here. The Dawnflower has granted me her favor."
"But the satrap has not," I said, finding myself more than a bit pleased at being called her friend. "And he has allies amongst your fellowship that eagerly seek war."
"But we serve the same goddess. Despite appearances, the church of the Dawnflower in Katheer remains open to a more peaceful way."
"Perhaps. But what of the satrap and his ministers who plot war against the north? They rile your fellow priests to righteous anger and lead them down the path of violence—the same path that you preach against. What do those ministers think of the meddling hermit out of the desert, I wonder?" I jabbed a finger at her ragged tunic.
"I do not know what sins you are expiating out here, Kazzar, but do not shroud this holy mission in your paranoia."
"Think about it, Shaba. If you vanish in the desert, there will be one fewer voice of opposition to the satrap's plans. The Dawnflower's dervishes may well go to war even if the nation cannot, manipulated by the schemes of devious nobles."
Najh's soldiers grew suspicious of our whispering and began examining a panel nearer to us. I changed the subject.
"Tell me more about your 'holy mission,' Shaba," I said loudly.
For all her apparent dislike of subterfuge, she replied without missing a beat. "Azzah the Prophet lived eight hundred years ago and fostered a strictly nonviolent sect that worshipped Sarenrae."
"Yet you still carry a sword," I observed. Shaba ignored my jibe. She was growing adept at that.
"When he was aged and near death, his most trusted followers vanished into the desert, leaving behind only a handful of scrolls with his core teachings. But he left a promise that before he died his truest message yet would be delivered to those who followed the Dawnflower."
"And the final homily never came?"
Shaba shook her head.
"Indeed. Though word did come that he'd constructed a tower somewhere in the depths of the Ketz Desert and offered his body to the beasts of the air."
I shuddered. Sky burial was an ancient practice, and not much in fashion with the civilized folk of Qadira these days. A roc nesting at the top of the tower suddenly seemed too convenient a coincidence. Such portents were not to be taken lightly.
"It seems the beasts of the air never left," I said. Shaba raised a knuckle to her lips, thinking over my words.
"Perhaps the roc serves as the guardian of Azzah's spirit," she said, dismay plain in her voice.
Najh returned from the next room with a wolfish smile.
"The interior is intact. There's a stair through the ceiling into another chamber."
"And what did you see there?" I asked.
"The treasures of a faithful man," he replied, his eyes shining.
Najh motioned for us to follow. Shaba rose, absently tracing the pommel of her sword with one finger. I wondered if the priest would trust in her fate or in her sword when the time came to choose.
It was cold in the innermost chamber of Azzah's Tower, insulated as it was from the desert's glare by thick walls. Four vestibules ringed that central core: north, west, south, and finally east, the chamber where we had entered. The western portal was filled with debris and sand, but the others stood open, and I longed to explore them as Najh clearly had. Despite the glint of gold from objects in those shadowed chambers, the tower walls here were less ostentatious in their proclamations of Azzah's glory, with little adornment save repeating icon of Sarenrae and the holy rays of her sun.
Shaba made immediately for the stair that wound its way up the core and into an upper chamber. Najh halted her.
"Wait," he said, gesturing to one of his soldiers.
The man held his torch as high as he could, peering into the gloom above. Then, unsheathing his sword, he mounted the first step. The stones shifted under the tread of his boots, showering dust and flakes of rock. One stone fell loose, thumping to the floor with a dreadful echo. I froze, awaiting a sudden death of falling stones, feathers, and talons, but if the roc heard, it made no response.
"We must mind our step." Shaba said, following the soldier over the missing stone.
A simple spell could have carried me up into the darkness as if on the desert winds, but Najh gave a slight bow and waved me onto the fragile stair. My misgivings intensified when he and the other soldier also drew their swords. The hole where the step had rested gaped like a missing tooth in a mouthful of fangs—and we were marching right into the gullet.
We climbed the stairs with utmost caution, my legs quickly developing painful cramps from the slow, careful steps. The soldiers kept their swords drawn, and my spine writhed like a serpent as I anticipated the kiss of a blade. I kept a spell close to quickening in my mind, in case a sudden escape should become necessary. If Najh meant to kill me, he appeared not to be in a hurry, and so we gained the upper chamber without incident.
It was a large spherical hall sectioned into eighths by gilt buttresses like the ribs of an orange. The stair continued around its circumference, eventually winding through a portal in the roof, framed with more sunbursts that led further up into the tower.
Around us, the treasures of Azzah's life were piled in haphazard fashion: chests of worm-eaten silks, tarnished plate of silver and brass, patinaed copper trade ingots from bygone caravans, and small caskets of glinting coin and glittering jewels. There was no doubt significant value to Azzah's storehouse, but with one camel now in the belly of the roc, I feared we would not be able to carry it all away.
As with the rooms below, frescoes of Sarenrae's legends intermingled with scenes from Azzah's life. Here was a brightly painted scene of his miraculous birth under an eclipse; there as a young man, already with a prophet's braided beard, turning away an invading army and welcoming their commanders as his followers. A large painting spread across the top quarter of the room; Azzah's exile from Katheer, his former students taking up the sword, and the final moments of his sky burial where huge black vultures carried gobbets of his flesh into the heavens. I shuddered involuntarily at the last one.
Shaba fell to her knees, her eyes shimmering like muddy oases.
"The Eye! It is here!"
I followed her pointing finger to a detail on a mosaic. It depicted a large globe of black stone atop a pedestal near the vultures feasting on Azzah's corpse. Indecipherable writing wrapped its surface and gold panels of light radiated like sunbeams. Magical lines of force perhaps, but I recalled the tiny heatstones in the mosaics below.
"If it's still here, Shaba, then I fear it warms the nest of the roc upstairs." A thrill of pleasure welled up from my toes to the crown of my head to see the sudden look of dismay on Najh's face.
"That is the artifact you and the satrap seek?" Najh asked, his eyes narrowed.
Shaba nodded, her face grave.
"The Eye of Azzah contains his final words of peace, his last revelation of reconciliation. What did you expect, Captain?" Immersed in the study of a casket of gemstones, I still registered Shaba's contempt.
"Traipsing into the roc's nest is beyond foolish," Najh said, his voice flat.
"Shaba and I can go alone if you'd like," I offered. "It shouldn't take us but a minute to steal the Eye and roll it back down the stairs."
Najh flashed his canine teeth.
"Your intention is noble, but perhaps it would be wiser if we stuck together, Kazzar."
Shaba couldn't contain her fervor any longer. She raced to the stair and gained a quarter turn before Najh's soldiers caught on. I darted ahead of them as well, a sudden elation burning within me. The stairs of the sun chamber were more fragile than those below, and so I kept my charm of rescue ready in case I should trip and fall.
Destiny is not always a burden. It can lighten the heart and fire the soul. I had known that I would see and do great things all my life, as a result of the stars that rose above my head the night of my birth. As I raced up the stairs, I saw Shaba returning with the Eye to Katheer and being welcomed as a hero, gaining a following to rival even Azzah's. I saw the satrap helpless before her persuasions, and Najh and his men executed as thieves of Sarenrae's temple. Most of all I saw myself elevated to vizier, vital to all commerce between the Sarenites and the Qadiran government. And after that, who knew how much further I might rise?
But the mirage of glory vanished when I reached the top of the crumbling stair.
The uppermost chamber of Azzah's Tower had collapsed, penetrated by a sky blacker than a pit. Atop one crumbling battlement, the roc slept, its vast hunched shape blotting out most of the cold, glinting stars. Wind-scoured stones ringed its nest, where a half-dozen eggs the size of sheep lay. Marbled in green and gold, they lay basking in the warmth of a globe of solid black rock.
The Eye of Azzah.
Just one of those eggs would fetch a generous sum in Katheer, but the Eye was beyond price. I strained to make out the tiny inscriptions in gold and silver across its face, ancient Kelish words which swam before my eyes. Shaba stood silent, quivering before it. Her face was lit with holy rapture, a sheen of reflected starlight that bespoke a destiny greater than perhaps even my own. I owe little to the gods that move above and below this world, but I saw a working of their will in Shaba's suddenly humble frame.
Then from within the eggs came the dull scraping of chicks nearing their hatching time. The foreboding racket so transfixed my attention that I almost missed Najh's quiet, nasty chuckle and the sleek rasp of a dagger being drawn.
"Now is the moment, Haron esh Kazzar," he whispered.
Whatever Shaba Alma's destiny, it seemed that fate had other plans for her.
And for me.
Coming Next Week: Heroes caught between a roc and a hard place in the thrilling conclusion Andrew Penn Romine's "The Fate of Falling Stars"!
Andrew Penn Romine's short stories have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Crossed Genres, Broken Time Blues, Rigor Amortis, and the forthcoming Fungi from Innsmouth Free Press. In addition, he's contributed nonfiction articles and blogs to Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Inkpunks, and Functional Nerds (as the Booze Nerd). For more information, visit his website andrewpennromine.com or follow him on Twitter at @inkgorilla.
Illustration by Lane Brown.