The end of world came almost without warning.
No dark clouds, no ominous celestial portents of any kind. One day, the sun shone, the two moons continued their lazy chase across the Aerthian sky. The next moment, the sky parted and a great and glowing sword of light burst from the wound, striking Aerthos down and cutting a vicious swath of death through all its inhabitants. Man, woman and child, animal and vegetable fell before its dread blade, and when all had perished, even the Reapers stood for but a moment before they, too, were slain.
The world became like a lump of coal, blackened and dry. Cracks formed in the crust of the land, splitting the world wide to its core, until, at the last, every last ounce of life was sucked away to slake some bottomless thirst that lay beyond their perceptions.
Even the Reapers, the old woman thought with a shock that stirred her from her dream. The most powerful beings in all of Aerthos, those who held the power of life and death in their hands, who could pass between the lands of Aerthos or through time itself as easily as a mortal could step from their beds. What manner of being has such power?
The screams of the dying were still fading in her ears as her eyes adjusted to the pre-dawn darkness. The winds toyed with the curtains of her room, blowing in from the east and the south. The same dream had first haunted her nights almost five years ago to the day, and she had not even the barest concept of what she could do to stop it. Surely the gods do not give us dreams of the morrow in order to punish us with fears of the unavoidable, she had thought.
As Song-Mistress of the Sky People, she had to be on the watch for dreams of grave portent. Sometimes the dreams were simple – go west for rain; watch the baker’s tower for an unexplained fire; treat the mason’s son with dried farol root and the extract of a spicy persimmon fruit to reduce his fever. For two incarnations of the Song-Mistress, there had been few concerns – the sandstorms which frequented the deserts notwithstanding – but now, this. She sighed ruefully.
A short-legged fur-covered animal appeared as if from thin air, its bright orange eyes sparkling in the half-light.
“Ah, Merlo,” the woman smiled. “Did I wake you with my dream?”
The creature shook its head. The old woman stroked the creature’s soft iridescent fur, causing her hand to momentarily look as if it was fading in and out of reality. In truth, it was a side effect of the creature’s natural camouflaging abilities, but Merlo had ways of using her fur’s shifting color patterns to achieve a variety of mystical effects as well.
The creature’s fur was the least of her uses to the old woman, however. As with all of her kind, Merlo was connected to all her species, living and dead. All memories and thoughts were stored in the aether of the world, floating in and out of their kind’s grasp. It made a fitting companion for a Song-Mistress – Merlo’s access to her species’ memories gave her a veritable library of history that stretched back thousands of years. Access to the whole of history helped put whatever visions the Song-Mistress might receive into proper context.
Sometimes, the best the creature offered was comfort. With the series of dreams like unto the one which had just awakened her, there was no context that helped, no historical anecdote that reassured the Song-Mistress. The dreams had troubled her and it had grown long since past the point where she had considered them a simple trick of anxiety or bad wine. What she had dreamed would come to pass, and though the final outcome was unclear, she knew that all life hung in the balance. She was old enough and wise enough to know that all too often the least desirable outcome stood the greater chance of happening.
But it was not until a month earlier that she had been given hope. Hope, strangely enough, that came in the form of a corpse.
She put what steps into motion as she was able, and now, with those steps already on another edge of the world, she was helpless to do aught but wait. Patience was not a lesson that had come easily to her. By the time she had a grasp of it, she had so precious little time left. One more irony to add to the pile, she mused. One more pinch of incense to add to the flames.
She exhaled, contemplating rising early to meditate in her prayer room. It was on the west of the city; it would still be in shadow for another two or three hours. She decided to stay here for now, and go to her prayer room when the sun was higher and that extra bit of cool would be most appreciated. For now, she decided to remain in the quiet shadow of her room, alone with her dark thoughts and the merest fragment of hope to drive them away.
“Fly well, my niece,” she whispered, flexing her old and tired fingers in an ancient gesture of good fortune. “Find what we so desperately need and return with it to us.”
Sleep would not return to her that morning. But all day long she would pause and look to the north, for sign of the airship’s return.
"Dead Man" is the new Aesirium novel by author Ren Cummins, due out by the end of 2013.
You can read more about his previous novels at http://talariapress.com/the-chronicles-of-aesirium/