Chapter 33: Shadow of the ThroneAugust 1, 2019
Those who fear the desert’s heat will never find secrets beneath the sands.
Tamarys shook her head, raising a hand to shade her gaze against the harsh sun. The golden dunes of the Amaran stretched before her, the air swimming with heat. Far beneath her feet, worn by ceaseless desert winds, she could feel stone. This was the place.
I’ve come a long way since those icy shores…
She was on a quest for answers. Ever curious, she had focused on an ancient power, its history so old that it was indistinguishable from story and myth.
She was searching for the history of the Eternal Throne.
It had been a search with many dead ends.
At the shore of the caldera, as wind screamed through the surrounding mountains, Kaleb had directed her to the Jennev, an isolated clan skilled in elemental magic. The reclusive shamans had much to teach her; and while they knew of Queen Eilyn and her rule, they had little knowledge of the Throne itself. The tower must have been secluded here, Tamarys realized, far from the Throne and prying eyes. If I want answers, I must go elsewhere.
Next, Tamarys had journeyed to the campuses and temples of the Combrei. The scholars there were helpful, and their records stretched back for centuries, but the textbooks were dry, focusing on matters of medicine and artifice.
This is wrong, Tamarys had wanted to shout. History should not bound away on dusty shelves!
Which led me here… The geomancer thought, cresting a low dune. Below her, protected from the desert storms, were the remains of a dig site. Abruptly abandoned when delving into the Shadowlands became more profitable.
The ruins themselves were rumored to be ancient. Far older than Argenport, Tamarys hoped. Whatever structure had once stood there was long gone. But maybe, if she was lucky, some part of it survived underground. From the look of the dig site, excavation had been slow-going. A wall of heavy rubble had collapsed, covering the doorway down into the ruins.
Standing above the site, Tamarys smiled.
The chant rolled through the arena, followed by a flurry of drums. Overhead, the Xultan sun hung low in the sky, glowing with sullen rage.
The chant ended; a call to the Ancestors to witness the feats below.
The Trials of Grodov had begun!
On the west side of the arena, an armored cohort emerged. At their head, an oni in a blood-red helm raised her hands to the cheers from the crowd.
“Grodov see my strength!” Aika roared. The drums rolled again, and her roar was drowned out by another. Her adversary.
A gate was lowered in the heavy stone wall of the arena, and the beast charged. The cat was large, with a crest of fur along its back and fangs that hung past its lower jaw. As it prowled closer, Aika bared her teeth and drew her blades. Behind her, the rest of her oni did the same. The sound of steel rang through the coliseum as a second shape emerged from the shadows: a towering bear with heavy, gore-crusted claws.
“Ha!” Aika’s laugh was cut short as the large cat pounced. But its fangs found only air as the oni dodged. Aika whirled to one side, keeping close to the beast and drawing long slashes across its haunch with her swords.
“Leave this one to me!” She shouted over the large cat’s snarl. “The bear is yours. Makkar’s favor to whoever lands the killing blow!”
The crowd cheered as the oni fanned out around the bear, polearms at the ready.
The ruins were deathly quiet.
Besides her own breath and soft tread, the only sound Tamarys could hear was the slither of sand.
Whatever civilization this place was part of, it’s long gone, she thought, running her hand along a rough-hewn sandstone wall. The stone here was old, old enough that the mortar had crumbled to dust and let the desert in.
I wonder what the dig crew was searching for… Tamarys wondered. The rubble-strewn stairway had opened into a larger room lined with tall pillars. This far underground, the only illumination came from lightning held in Tamarys’ hand.
I wonder why this was abandon— the thought was cut short when something skittered through the shadows. Tamarys froze. Surely, one bug wouldn’t be so bad…
Something hummed past her head, mandibles slashing her cheek. Tamarys flinched and slapped it away, feeling blood well from the cut. Cursing under her breath, she took another step forward. The tile beneath her foot shifted, and a grating sound echoed through the chamber.
From the darkness, a buzzing began to swell, and the air grew warm with the movement of wings. Run! Tamarys turned, dashing back the way she had come as locusts boiled out of the shadows. The swarm was fast, and Tamarys felt their hum on the back of her neck. Something bit her heel, and Tamarys stumbled.
With a pained cry, she unleashed a burst of wind. The swarm surged through it, pincers gleaming. Tamarys redoubled her efforts, thrusting both hands forward as insects engulfed her. Through the howling winds, she felt something latch onto her arm. Gritting her teeth, Tamarys pulled more sand into the storm around her, and watched as locusts began to fall from the air, too heavy to fly.
Before they could rise, Tamarys gestured again. The base of a nearby pillar shattered, and the stone monolith collapsed, crushing the swarm with a thunderous boom that sent out a wave of choking dust and dirt.
Coughing, Tamarys called lightning into her hand again and looked around. The buzzing had ceased, and nothing else moved. But as she turned, something caught her eye. Her sandstorm had torn dust and grit from the far wall, and carvings covered its surface. Heart pounding, Tamarys stepped closer.
It was an old language, made from pictures as much as words, but it was one that Tamarys had seen before. Slowly, her fingers tracing the runes, she began to try to work out the broken script.
In the arena, under a reddening sky, an elemental stood proudly. Her skin was ice, flickering with a blue light, and she held a curved blade in either hand. Facing Sodi, her back to the setting sun, was a Xultan soldier. One of her eyes was an emerald stone, and she held her long sword at the ready.
As the bottom of the sun touched the horizon, the drums crashed and the crowd began to chant. Gro-dov! Gro-dov!
“Kodosh, guide my blows,” Yisha said, raising her sword.
“Linrei, deceive my foe,” Sodi replied, returning the salute.
The combatants moved, throwing themselves at one another as the crowd roared. Yisha struck first, using her momentum to overwhelm Sodi. The elemental tried to catch Yisha’s foil between her blades, but was knocked back. The Xultan surged forward, her sword whirling around her as she pressed the advantage.
Grimacing, Sodi retreated, dodging strikes as she gave ground. As she did, the air around her began to grow cold, ice spreading over the ground beneath her. Focused on the offensive, Yisha did not notice the ice until her foot slipped from beneath her. The pause was all Sodi needed. The elemental exploded forward in a flurry of blows. Yisha was quick to recover, catching Sodi’s early attacks with the hilt of her foil, and taking the brunt on the assault on her pauldron.
Sodi’s icy blades shrieked as they struck metal, and Yisha responded, slamming the pommel of her weapon into Sodi’s stomach. The elemental stumbled back, gasping for air as fury filled her face. With a thunderclap, Sodi hurled a spear of ice at Yisha. It shattered against the soldier’s armor and sent her crashing into the curved wall of the arena.
As Sodi stalked forward, Yisha pushed herself to her feet shakily. As she stood, a gasp rose from the crowd. There was a deep wound across Yisha’s forearm.
The crowd began to murmur, and both fighters froze.
Xultan blood had been spilled.
It was night by the time Tamarys stumbled from the ruins, her head spinning. The writing had been a record of some kind of cataclysm. Most of the text had been worn away by time and the insect’s industrious hive, but she had found a single, dire passage:
The Throne is power, and only power can wield it. The seat is one of blinding light, and when the Throne speaks, worlds quake, worlds die.
With every breath, darkness grows. Worlds live and we die.
Be warned. The Throne must not be used.
Flanked by two pairs of guards, Sodi was led from the arena in silence.
Xultan blood had been spilled. The blood of Makkar.
An unforgivable offense.
As they passed beneath the heavy arch, the sun’s last light caught a shape carved into the heavy rock. It was a dark circle, split into smaller sections, like a knot or twisting maze. Around the symbol, the dying light of Xulta’s sun shone through, blood-red and furious.
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