Interval XII – Ashes to Ashes

A twilight world.

The sky was grey-brown, and the sun flickered weakly, hanging in the same position over the horizon it had held for millenia. The air was quiet and cool, soft breezes threading between buildings that shone, crystalline, in the dim light. Fluted shapes, arches, columns, spreading across the surface of the world like a waterfall caught in a single motion, glass shaped and formed into a city of a trillion prismatic spires, its shining buildings swirling with colours, both from scattered light and glazed into the buildings themselves.

On the light side of the world, the air was heated by the failing sun and rose, drawing great gusts of cold air from the dark side, whistling through the buildings, kicking up ash in thick storms that rolled through the quiet city every few weeks. The light dimmed, the world becoming sepia, the glittering buildings choking in the dust of ages. When it once again fell still, the ash settled like thick grey snow across the gleaming city, where the lighter zephyrs gathered it in drifts and swirls until the next storm rolled through to continue the cycle of ash dispersal that encompassed the entire world.

Scraping away the coat of ash that lay opaque upon the glass roads, a visitor to this glass city would catch sight of the dead beneath. They lay in the glass, beneath the surface, their eyes closed. Unmarred by time they lay, peaceful sleepers in an eternal rest, serene and untouched beneath the streets. When everything in the world died in a single instant, it was not just them that died. Trees in the city’s parks crumbled to ash, and the city was rendered sterile. Nothing has decayed, nothing has rotted. Above each of the glass-embedded corpses, a careful hand had carved their names, setting them into the surface of the winding glassy lanes in a language eons dead. This world was a tomb, a sepulchre, the ossuary of an entire civilisation. The corpse of the world that they had built still lurched along, the darkling sciences and ancient arcanics of its builders holding the funeral world together as it hung beneath an unmoving sky.

And yet, in this quiet and ash-swept place, this home of corpses and memories, something stirred. Like a pareidolic illusion, a nameless Walker stepped from the scenery. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been there and now was – a single moment, a single distinct line between existence and nonexistence was impossible to define. This place, the Ashen City, was hidden, lost and had never been connected to any Causeway, but he was a Walker, a Sidereal Elf, and there was no path he could not travel. A cloth wrapped around his mouth and awkwardly around his long nose kept out the worst of the bitter ashes of the world as he made his way, treading gingerly through the silent streets, watching carefully for any sign of habitation. He saw none. He was, as far as he could tell, one of two visitors to the city, almost as long as he’d ever known about it.

The other visitor had left notes for him, neatly folded, in prominently-placed boxes with small brightly-coloured flags that rose above the shifting ash, fluttering gently as the breezes moved to and fro. The messages were short, neatly handwritten, and apologies – the other visitor hadn’t seen or felt any sign of another Walker visiting the Ashen City since the last time he’d visited. It wasn’t unexpected, but it still hurt. He hadn’t seen any of his people since before he’d found himself here, choking on the cloying ash, wandering dead streets in a dead world, nearly dying himself before the other visitor found him.

 

“Ah. You are a young Sidereal,” she had said, all those years ago. “And you have inhaled rather a large amount of ash. Hold still a moment.”

Her voice was clear and warm, and she looked so much like the ghosts, the dead things beneath the glassy paving. She could almost have been one that stood back up from its rest.

A glow and tickling sensation, and his lungs were clear. The visitor had barely started her next sentence, something about “this place is not for the living, child. Come-” before he vanished, Walking as far from her as he could.

 

He had run from her, at first, this phantom of a dead people, but he realised his mistake and sought her out, and she told him the story of that place, this world and everyone who died in it. Her civilisation, snuffed out like a candle, leaving her to wander alone in this Ashen City like he had been doing when she met him. He’d fallen back out of contact when he’d started to flee the Red Right Hand – started to see their symbol everywhere, even though the cult was supposedly disassembled with great prejudice by the First Bookbinder – but they’d stayed in touch, via these letters left in a place only the two of them could visit. She tried to help him find his people, his family, but if anything could be said about Walkers, they were impossible to locate if they didn’t want to be found.

It was she who had walked the streets alone, millenia before any Walker set foot there, following the long seconds of the City’s death. She who sunk the corpses of the Smoke Elves into the glass of the roads. She who carved the names, the dedications. Her name was Gyran Triskelion, and she was the last of the Smoke Elves. He was merely a Nameless Walker – the only known of his people, who were gone as opposed to dead.

 

“I don’t think our situations are that dissimilar,” she had said, when asked. “We were both left alone, with none of our peers to help us.”

“They’re different!” he had insisted. “You found me, rescued me from the ash! You didn’t have anyone like that.”

She had pursed her lips. “A fair comparison. However, I was an adult when the Glass City perished, and you were barely a teenager when your people abandoned you.”

He didn’t have a reply for that, at the time. He wasn’t sure he had a reply, even now.

 

His visit over, he sighed. Situations were changing, faster than his ability to track them. The White and the Grey were taking too specific an interest, Syrk the Deathless – who acted based on the terrible insight of his sponsor – was already putting his designs in motion. Something big, something the nameless Walker had missed, was happening, or had happened. He muttered under his breath, blinking the stinging ash from his eyes, then vanished, Walking to one last specific place, before his visit to the Ashen City was complete.

Two sunken corpses, hidden by the ash. Two dedications, this time writ on the wall above where they lay. Three graves. The third was empty, a shallow trench next to the other two, half-filled with the ever-present ash of the City. There was no name above the third grave, but the implication of this preparation was fairly obvious. A promise of rest.

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