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Fiction Contest: A Gift for the Dead


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A story set at the end of the Age of Myth. Here's the first 1000 words. Sorry that I've cut this a bit fine, deadline-wise! I'll post the second half shortly, if anybody is interested.




"The dead do not know fear," the grey priest had told her "but do not think them senseless. They are bound to the Lord of Death, and He has no master at all - save the truth of death itself, the final fact of it, the great departure that awaits us all, even Him. Only a fool fears the shifting pathways of the desert when all journeys share a destination."


Akarn had been a girl then, an acolyte chosen for service in the high strata of the Necropolis of Three. She felt a comfort in service to the holy dead that she had never found in the lower city. She had always been different, but under the unfaltering gaze of the Silent Triumvirate she found a stillness that quieted her fitful mortal soul.


Akarn was old, now, and now she knew that the priest had been wrong. The dead could know fear.


She had seen it on the day that the Lord of Death fell. They had crossed the world to be by His side as He met the scion of the dark gods in battle. The priest-cohort tended their dead masters like squires, anointing the holy bones and adorning them with golden tributes that foretold the victory to come. They had been so sure. There had only been the fact of it.


The defeat of the Lord of Death was apostasy. The living fell to despair immediately, fleeing into the desert only to be cut down by the dark-armoured servants of Chaos. In that moment Akarn's eyes had turned to her masters, and then she knew that they were doomed.


The three kings froze, uncertain for the first time. They had looked so solid, so resolute, but now she saw their frailty. Out across the field servants of the Blood God howled as they claimed the bones of the crumbling host. Where once the Lord of Death had safeguarded His servants, now the routing armies of the undead presented a bounty to the skull-takers of Khorne. The dead kings witnessed this and, as if in despair themselves, collapsed upon the sand.


She led a small group of trusted followers - her own acolytes, for the most part - onto the field amidst the strife. They gathered the sacred remains of the Silent Triumvirate and fled just ahead of the onrushing hordes of Archaon. At the port city of Biriach they bartered what little they had for three well-worn funerary urns, inadequate reliquaries for their holy burden. They crossed the Sour Sea, hoping to escape the servants of the dark gods upon the salt waves. The screams of the men and women of Biriach reached them across the still water when the flayers took the city. Black barques shadowed them on the long journey to Desert's End.


Their return to the Endless Deserts gave them no succour. Progress was hard, and their familiarity with the sands of their homeland provided little advantage in the face of Chaos unchecked. The servants of darkness were a flood, a tide of sacrilege that would drown the world. Men and women that had lived lives in service to holy death now feared for their souls, and for the souls of the holy masters that had guided them. The bones of the Silent Triumvirate seemed to grow heavier each day, and the survivors took to sending acolytes out alone to draw the savages away and earn them a few more hours, a few more days. Each day they spent the living to save the dead.


Eventually six remained. They had lost their way along the shifting pathways of the desert, losing their trust in the old knowledge without the dead to guide them. Akarn considered instructing the survivors to stop and wait and die, but the servants of the dark gods might find their bodies before the sacred sands covered them up. The risk was simply too great, their charge too important.


They kept moving until movement became thoughtless, starving through the freezing night and marching blind through the blistering day. Akarn pushed back thoughts of the Necropolis of Three, how it might feel to catch sight of its glittering promenades upon the horizon. Her desire was agony. She merely walked, affecting the stillness and surety of the dead.


Her eyes were downcast when they stumbled across the ruin. Her first thought was shock, hope - a glimpse of home - but this was not the necropolis. Half-collapsed and claimed by the desert, whoever had erected these cyclopean colonnades had been gone for a long time. The wind howled across cracked flagstones as Akarn knelt and traced sand-smoothed hieroglyphs with her fingertips.


The travellers laid down the reliquaries and collapsed in silence amongst the ancient stonework. Akarn did not stop them - she would allow them a moment of shelter and respite, at least - but nor could she bring herself to rest. As the sun reached its apex she pressed deeper into the temple complex. If the necropolis was truly lost to her, then perhaps a fit end to her masters' journey might be found here.


As she passed underneath an archway flanked by great stone wings she felt eyes upon her, heard stone crack and sand shift. Akarn turned about as she entered a ruined basilica. She was alone. Her eyes turned to the dark statues that lined this place in various states of collapse. The floor was strewn with fragments of obsidian: a broken blade, the forearm of a colossal warrior, the impact-fractured death mask of an ancient queen. Only one statue remained intact, a rampant sphinx with a gaunt mortal face. A holy man of this lost city, no doubt, his name lost to the sands. Time had eaten away at the bindings affixing his golden adornments. He stood surrounded by the scattered glittering remains of glories past.


Akarn stepped closer, feeling a strange kinship with this last inhabitant of a doomed place. She forgot the terrors of the moment and outstretched her hand.


The sphinx regarded her and spoke.

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"Priest. Why have you come?"

Akarn started backward. In her long years she had never seen a necrosphinx; the Silent Triumvirate had never practiced the art of their creation, at least not in the span of mortal memory. Tales persisted of dead kings that marched to war alongside colossi of enchanted obsidian, but they were tales only. Her life had been concerned with the small rituals of death, never its glories - never this.


"You do not answer."


She avoided the necrosphinx's gaze as she searched for her voice. Falling to her knees in supplication, she struggled to find the words.


"Do not fear me. Answer. Why have you come?"


The sphinx's voice was cold but not unkind. It had the same certainty she had worshipped since her girlhood. She found some stillness in it.


"Escape, I…" she started, before stopping herself and starting again. "We are servants of the Necropolis of Three. Our masters, our kings, the Silent Triumvirate, they…"


Akarn looked up. The necrosphinx looked down on her, unblinking.


"They have lost the gift of undeath. The Lord of Death is gone. I will not allow them to be taken, but I…"


"You are lost, then" the sphinx interjected. "Most that find me are lost. A shame. I had thought from your garb that you might be different."


"And before you ask" the necrosphinx said, as Akarn opened her mouth. "I cannot change your fate. I have only ever known this chamber, nothing else. When I woke my creators were gone. I do not know whose face I bear, nor what this place is called. I merely am."


Akarn paused, then spoke. "If we cannot ask for guidance away from here" she said, "then perhaps I might… ask for something else."


The sphinx was silent.


"If we commit the holy bones of our masters to your protection, mighty guardian, then our journey could end here. We could die, knowing that the souls of our kings reside where the dark gods cannot find them. That would be enough."


"Enough" the necrosphinx repeated, "you wish to do enough."


"I have to say that solving this problem does not interest me. Nor should it interest you, either. You seem able. Is this really the height of your aspiration? The resolution you truly seek?"


"I don't understand" Akarn said. "I am pledged to the service of my m-"


"Think, priest. Consider who your enemy is. Your ailment. Your affliction. Answer me - what might die in one, and in so dying doom many?"


Akarn struggled to follow the course of the creature's logic. Was this a trial? Did the sphinx wish her to prove herself? She considered its question.


"Life" Akarn said, after a pause. "Life dies, becomes contagion - spreads. I saw it, in the far wars. The god of plagues doomed many."


"No." The sphinx replied. "Life simply is, as death is. And neither life nor death has doomed you to your present fate."


"Courage, then?" Akarn said, quicker this time. "We lost heart when the Lord of Death fell. It spread, from one to another. From our kings to us. We fled, and now we are here."


"Close" said the necrosphinx. "But not quite. The journey you have undertaken took no small amount of courage. You have it, I feel it in you. They have it too, you know. The servants of the Blood God, who track you still. I feel them also, in the sand. They are close. They are full of courage, and rage, and they are coming. Something died in you, priest, but it wasn't courage. Not yet."


Akarn's heart sank. She suddenly felt very old. She sat. She was tired, so tired, and there was no end to it - the march across the desert, this trial at the whim of a creature that confounded her. She thought that she had retained the surety of her faith but it was draining from her. She saw nothing in the future, none of the stillness and certainty that had fixed her in the world when she had been lost as a girl. It was gone, whatever it had been. It was -


"Hope." Akarn said, suddenly, before she could stop herself. "Hope died. In our holy masters, in their armies, in us. Hope in death. Hope in our Lord who was the end of all things. Our Lord who ended. We lost Him, lost the future, lost hope, and fear took its place. And fear has doomed us."


"Well said, priest" said the necrosphinx. "Your mind moves more quickly than I'd credited. I am glad, in truth. I did not want to have to lecture you."


"Hope is your salvation" the creature continued. "And hope does not arise from dead still things. Hope is a consequence of life, new life. You have come here seeking a safe grave. I invite you to find a cradle."


Akarn understood now. She did not know how, but she did. It came upon her like a revelation. The stillness that she had cherished all her long life, her faith in holy death, sat atop a roiling mortal soul. A living soul, with capabilities and extremities that she had never drawn on. She had believed that salvation meant drawing strength from the revered dead, but the coming of Chaos had changed that. Or perhaps it hadn't - perhaps life and death had always orbited one another. All she knew is that the necrosphinx was correct. She had taken the wrong approach. She could not save the Silent Triumvirate by burying them. She would saving them by restoring them to the start of life's journey. Life would be her gift to the dead.


"Good, priest" the sphinx spoke, although Akarn herself had said nothing. "Bring them here."


She moved back through the ruin to where her remaining companions slept. One at a time she lifted the heavy reliquaries and brought them through the winged archway, gathered them in the shadow of the great sphinx. While returning to collect the last, one of the sleeping wretches stirred but did not wake. She let him rest. He would open his eyes into a world of hope ascendant.


When did it grow dark? The stars were bright when Akarn brought the last reliquary to the wing-shadowed basilica. Starlight of every colour illuminated the chamber through a hole in the ruined roof. The wind whispered in the shadows. She collected herself, standing firm between the bones of her dead kings and the sphinx in the darkness.


"Close your eyes, priest" the sphinx said. "Reach out to them."


She saw them even with her eyes closed. The gold-adorned skulls of her beloved masters, trapped in wind-worn earthenware. Then, further, through the ruin, the ragged bones of her fellow survivors, themselves trapped in bodies no longer fit for purpose. It had ended, this particular journey, but it must start again. Akarn allowed herself to dream of what might be, what they might become - not the six living and the three dead but all nine of them, nine holy souls of the Necropolis of Three.


The needs of her masters came first, however, as they had always done. She reached into herself, into the thrashing mortal part of herself, and finally embraced the deep otherness that she had always feared, that had driven her to the priesthood so many years ago. There was magic in her, she knew - had always known - and it blossomed at her touch despite a lifetime of neglect.


The final facts of death were a riddle that she alone could solve, could change. Her willpower entered each reliquary in turn, spinning new flesh around old bones, making men of kings. It wasn't enough. They could all be so much more. She dug deeper, sought life unbound, wove flesh and bone and beak and feather.


The reliquaries shattered, one by one, as hope was reborn in the Endless Sands. There was so much more to be done. Her mind reached out and touched each sleeping priest in turn, the shrieking delight of change entering their bodies. The lightest sleeper of them woke and screamed, and as he screamed his jaw stretched wider, and wider, until his wretched skin fell away and capering pink joy emerged. Screams became peals of laughter. She felt herself laughing too, happier than she had ever been, drinking it in until she couldn't breathe, and then she woke.


Akarn opened her eyes. The stars sang colour and burned the temple away with each note. The necrosphinx faced her now, and capering shadows congregated on the glittering sands. She felt no tiredness and no pain but her reverie had faded. She looked to the sphinx for an answer, but the creature had changed. Its body was not obsidian, but pale flesh and sinew. Its feathered wings glittered in the starlight, and where the creature's impassive face had been now a fierce avian intelligence regarded her. Had it always been so? She knew it had, and did not know why she had ever believed otherwise. She also knew that it no longer mattered. Change had come to the Endless Desert.

"You are correct, sorceress" the creature said. "Change has come."

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