Fire in the Desert
The fire burns hottest at midday.
Even used to the heat, Leyla could barely tolerate the burning sun when it was at its zenith, and he moved quickly to find what shade he could.
He was traveling through what remained of the shattered ruins of Hatra. It was an ancient city, uninhabited for centuries, and what weather and sand had not claimed was blown to pieces by militants in the days before the uprising of the Primordials. As he took shelter beneath the base of a massive pillar, resting in the sliver of shade it provided, he could not help but think wryly that similar destruction now covered much of the Levant. The Primordials had a fondness for the annihilation of human monuments, and they were much more skilled and lacked discriminating taste. Cities old and new had been burned, blasted, overrun by monsters and consumed whole by tidal waves of sand and dust. Plagues of famine, locusts, and pestilence washed over the barren countryside at a biblical scale. In a land unmade by war and disaster, all of humanity had become refugees seeking safety wherever they could find it. Some turned to banditry, others tried to eke out a living in a land now filled with nightmares. Most, however, fled into the waiting arms of their destroyer.
Tiamat, the Roiling Chaos, was the shadow queen of the risen city of Babylon. She had unleashed a plague of horrors upon the Levant with one hand while the other had made the only sanctuary, a place where humans could be drawn in great numbers to be kept safe and sound beneath her watchful gaze. Whatever end she had for the people of Babylon it could not be good.
Leyla had seen the evil that lurked in Babylon for what it was. One of the first to identify the hand of Tiamat behind its every movement.
“We should have gone there long ago. She’s gained too much power for us to attack her alone.”
A male voice, separate from his own, sounded in his head. It wasn’t unusual for him at this point, and in fact quite expected. This was, after all, the voice’s body.
The voice in his head was Derya. Leyla had been Derya’s sister, but an unusual set of circumstances and the interference of a mystical fire spirit had led to Leyla and the spirit sharing the body and head space of Derya. Leyla was born and identified as female, but out of respect for her brother’s body and thoughts, had presented herself as male while inhabiting his body. It took some getting used to, but they made it work. That said, Leyla could not help but add a feminine touch now and then, much to Derya’s chagrin.
“I know,” Leyla complained. “But we weren’t in much of a state to do anything at the time. And we’re running low on options right now.”
“Only because you are not seeking options out, content to hide while demons amass power.”
Leyla frowned. He had done his best, but sometimes simply surviving out in the desert was a trial. The roaming monsters had only gained in strength, legions of bandits grew in size seemingly every week, and the ever-present shadow of Tiamat weighed heavily on his mind.
He stood up, steadying himself against a pillar as he shook the excess sand from his boots before setting off again. He was dressed for desert travel, with long light robes that kept him out of direct sunlight, a pack slung over his shoulder, and a curved shamshir sword at his hip. He could travel many miles a day, but sometimes Leyla longed for something as simple as a camel to lessen the burden.
As he began moving away from the remnants of Hatra, something else in him stirred. A warmth in his gut began to glow as he walked. The fire within him had sensed something not far off, and Leyla had long since learned to trust that instinct. There were things that one could only sense when possessed by potent spiritual energy, and it had saved his life more than once to trust the fire within him to guide him to places a regular mortal could never perceive.
Despite his trust in the gut feeling, there was little else around him save for rocky plains and shallow hills. The entire region was devoid of much topography, and there were few places to hide in such a barren place. Still, sometimes faith must be kept, even in the hardest of circumstances, for the truth to be shown. Leyla’s mind did not waver with skepticism. The fire had saved his life and Derya’s, and he knew that there must be something here among the rocks beneath the burning midday sun.
As he walked, hood drawn up to keep the sun out of his face, he saw something in the haze of heat rising from the baking rocks. A mirage began to form out of the haze, except as Leyla looked closer he saw that the image was only becoming more solid the closer he became. The structure that began to appear from the empty haze was not a mirage, the empty heat itself had been. Some power had hidden the building away, even as he drew closer to its doors it seemed indistinct.
Leyla raised his hand, using the other to keep his hood and cloak wrapped around himself. His palm and fingers began to burn red as fire erupted from his skin, the power coursed from his hearth and through his veins until it burst outward, shattering the illusion.
Before him rose a large temple, whole and unmarred by weathering or acts of man. Hidden in the heat haze of the desert it had remained untouched and unfound for untold centuries. It was largely non-descript, a great blank stone façade with only a single doorway.
“A bit dull for a temple,” Leyla said aloud.
“A temple is not meant to be a lavish place,” Came Derya’s curt reply, tinged with power from the fire. “It is a building to house the sacred fire, nothing more.”
“True,” Leyla said. “Though we might not be the first ones here.”
Closer inspection had revealed that the door had been smashed in, leaving nothing but a great black void as entrance into the darkened building. It stood there, menacingly, as if begging him to enter.
“See that the fire is not disturbed.” Derya said “There might be more to this temple than we thought if it’s been so cleverly hidden away.”
“Right,” Leyla said. “I might need some of your skills though.”
There was an unspoken but acknowledged consent as Leyla felt the power drain from his body as Derya’s will took over. Leyla still shared the senses and some of the motor control, but Derya was largely in command of his own body now. He was, after all, the one trained to hunt and kill demons.
Drawing the wickedly curved blade, Leyla stepped into the dark temple.
It took them a moment to adjust to the darkness. Just as everything seemed to go pitch black, the mystic fire within him burned behind his eyes, illuminating the darkness and casting everything in a soft blue light. For the first second the temple seemed empty, but that was only before they both spotted the hulking shape looming over them.
Unfortunately Leyla still had full control over his mouth.
“Shitshitshitshitshiiiiiiit!” Came the long string of expletives even as Derya prepared for the fight. He bent low, sword held at his side as red and blue fire sprang up down the length of the blade.
“Stop swearing, it’s throwing me off!”
Leyla was trained, just not as well as Derya. Training and experience had taught them how to move and fight as one, taking advantage of Leyla’s fuller control and Derya’s finer reflexes to reach the maximum of both of their potential.
The monster before them was easily five meters tall, it was built like a hulking gorilla save for the lean, almost famished chest, the spikes and horns rising from tis arms, back, and brow, and the burning coals it had in place of eyes. It bent to look down at them, snout full of vicious white teeth opening wide before it let loose an immense roar that seemed to shake the stones.
“What is that thing!?”
“Some misbegotten spawn of Tiamat, or one bred from one of her brood.” Derya spat. “And it’s our duty to punish it for entering a fire temple.”
“Right!” Leyla agreed, focusing himself as the two of them got to work.
The monster swung at them with its muscular over-long arms, the air whistling as the blows sliced the air. Leyla felt the power of the fire coursing through his entire body, and no doubt Derya felt it now as well. The beast was quick but they were quicker. Ducking low over the first swing then leaping over the second, Leyla cut the distance between him and the monster in seconds. A broad slash over the torso cut through its muscular flesh, but it had been a shallow cut, and as the beast roared it raised both hands before bringing its fists smashing down onto the floor where he had been standing, shattering the stone beneath.
A shamshir blade had impressive cutting power, but it made for a horrible thrusting weapon. There was no easy way to pierce the beast’s heart, which left their options limited. Thankfully, as big and powerful as their opponent was, they were stupid as well.
“We’ll need to time this perfectly.” Derya warned. “No screw-ups”
“There won’t be.” Leyla said, spinning the flaming sword in hand to bring it up to head level. Seeing this defensive posture, the monster lunged at them full force, arms outstretched to grab hold of them. Leyla waited until the very last instant, almost falling into the monster’s grasp before leaping upwards like a shot up and over its reach. Flaming sword arced through the air as he brought it down in a graceful swinging curve onto the monster. In one swift motion the beast’s head was separated from its body as Leyla landed on its back, the monster’s crumpled form smashing into the floor and sliding several meters before coming to a halt.
“Well done.” Derya said as Leyla felt control come back to his limbs.
“I had a lot of help” Leyla said.
Blue fire began to consume the monster’s body, burning it away until nothing would remain but clean white ashes. Looking around the temple, now lit by the fires, Leyla tried to see just what the monster had broken into this temple to find. It was possible it had only come to desecrate, but that seemed unlikely given the remoteness of the place and the difficulty of uncovering it.
In the center of the temple was a large raised plinth, about a meter wide by two long, covered in a long red cloth that was laid unevenly over it and had fallen somewhat to the floor. Atop the plinth was the empty fire vessel of the temple. Leyla walked to the plinth, placing his hand over the vessel filled with ancient wood, and with a mere thought fire filled it again. Leyla wasn’t sure if it was Derya or the spirit of the fire itself, but something told him that the fires must keep burning.
“There doesn’t seem to be much he-“ Leyla paused halfway through his sentence as the light from the new fire was reflected in something shiny and crystalline. Looking closer, Leyla saw that the covered plinth was not made of stone, but of glass.
Carefully taking the vessel of fire and setting it aside, Leyla removed the rest of the cloth, and as it fell away he could feel the breath leave his throat.
The plinth was a hollow box of thick crystal-cut glass, the top surface covered in gold lettering in ancient Avestan. It was not empty, however, for within lay the curled form of a sleeping young woman. Her skin and hair were tannish brown, and she was dressed in long robes of white and blue. What surprised him most, however, were the wings of gold and deep blue feathers that sprouted from her back.
“What is this…?” Leyla said quietly.
“I have no idea.” Came Derya’s curt reply.
Gently, Leyla placed a hand on the glass box. As he did, however, the fire came unbidden through his hand and flowed into the translucent tomb. The gold writing began to shine as a seam appeared across the top and the lid of the box began to slide open. As it did, the sky blue eyes of the being within began to open.