The City of Sand and Knives’, A.J. Fitzwater

Illustrations © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei.

 [ City of Sand, © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] The magnificent steel and copper-coloured glass gates enfolded me with welcome. The last time I had seen them a half millennium ago they had been in ruins, cutting my hastening feet. But here they were—poised, ready, reminiscent of blood.

I, A’harim, had come back to my city of birth to finally put my soul and its memory to rest.

As I stepped beyond the lintel of the three span high gates which folded open to the desert, the wind that had been trying to knife me to pieces disappeared and thick quiet lay within the four expansive walls of the city of El’mas.

Yes, some semblance of sah’hara remained here though it teetered towards ancient. I could smell it lingering in the gates and walls that were supposed to be as dead as the city, had sensed its glittering edge across my nerves even decades and hundreds of klicks away. That half-remembered scent of potential and possession had drawn me back, though in some way I had searched for that memory of wonder, glass and belonging in many other places and times.

I paused to throw back my hood and unclip my breathing veil, carefully shaking sand from creases and folds in my toe-length cape. More than just an irritant, the desert could kill in hundreds of ways, from its unrelenting storms to its miniscule razor blades working their way into food and skin.

The grand causeway opened before me but it was not the vigorous road of shops and houses I had once loved and prayed amongst. The glittering white sand lumped against its gutters, dunes hinting at once cream and gold pavement, consuming what would have been buildings, parks, familiar landmarks.

Shuttering out the destruction, pushing back the threatening shi’vah at the corner of my mind, I focused ahead at the one building that stood, tall, proud and whole.

A building that should have been shards of shards, part of the unforgiving knife of a desert that raged outside.

The Spire.

It winked and gleamed, scattering the meagre sun’s light through the prism perched hundreds of spans above the forgotten sands. At one time it had been El’mas’s tallest building, a symbol of triumph and mastery, a home to our arrogance.

It too, like the Hu’thr’im, had fallen. However, we had never sought to rebuild on our naivety, though we had painstakingly rebuilt our souls.

I sighed and shook off the weight of years along with the last of the sand that had crept under my collar, wiping blood from a raw patch of skin, licking my finger clean, ever conscious of waste. The skin along my décolletage gave a tell-tale tingle as my body gathered itself to repair the minor damage.

The lone finger of glass beckoned me, its once haughty grandeur muted without an attached body of a city at its beck and call. I struck off in the last leg of my journey, boots scratching and scraping against the gently rising causeway.

I had come to find out why it had risen once more, why it had worked its way into my dreams over the last few years, dreams which I could finally no longer ignore. No one else showed a flicker of interest in my premonitions. They did not feel the wind as keenly as I, nor catch the spark from the faraway crystal in their minds. Surrounded by the crystal and glass of their newer, kinder cities, what was one more wink whether it came from near or far?

Had they forgotten? Why had they? Vexatious Hu’thr’im nature! In their frenzied insistence to always look forward, they smoothed over a cutting past. Perhaps this was why El’mas, the City of Beginning, lay sinking into the sands of its own making: a feeling still too new; a memory still too keen; a technology now too old.

The ground rumbled, and I instinctively dipped my knees as I strode the gentle incline. I straightened with a grin as the sound and movement rolled away.

“Welcoming me back, my Fairest?” I spoke against the settling oppressive silence. The ground did not reply with an aftershock. There had been a time long ago and near the end that the ground and I could converse for days. My tone then had not been one of wry memory, but of young, fresh terror and a horrified, too-late understanding of what fools we hu’thr’im had been.

The Spire grew, a trunk of glass obscured from far away mind and eye by clouds of cutting sand. If the detritus of the dead city did not lie across sky and land, it would have been cutting to the mind and eye in other ways. Even in this propitious state, a discordant hum stroked from behind my ears to the back of my skull.

As I came even closer, my heart sped to see The Spire replicated its original form exactly, glass leaves two fingers thick woven delicately together with filigree steel that belied its strength. Even the magnificent coloured glass scenes—stars, systems, ships, the Twenty-Four—that rose ten spans high before meeting the clear leaves were reproduced in perfect detail. Where had the crystal point tipping the awesome structure come from? The original prism, our voice to the galaxy, had been unique and a fierce loss to the Hu’thr’im.

Beyond all these contemplations, one question pressed against the steadily growing thrum in my head as I battled these many moons across the desert: how had it arisen again from the sands?

The twenty-four marble and quartz steps—one for each of the original ships—were swept clean and without flaw. Even within the walls of the city without the crying wind this would be a daily task of some doing.

No, not sah’hara, just sheer hu’thr’im will power, stubbornness, and hard work. Like The Spire, someone did this.

My boots rang loud against the stone but no one came out to greet me. I stood before The Spire’s doors, a mirror image of the city gates but in clear crystal that stood in stark relief against the myriad colours of the lower tower, but they did not sing open. It seemed the sah’hara could only extend so far, and what little power remained was spent in maintaining the spinning prism well above my head.

Or perhaps the strange caretaker had learned from past mistakes and tapped the core beneath the city with the care and respect we had never afforded it Before.

A shiver of heat caught my eye, unusual in this cold, dead, flat place where the wind outside could suck the essence from an unprotected body within moments. My feet turned towards the promise of life.

The shiver resolved out of the air into a smelter. I smiled against the long buried remembrance of my failed apprenticeship, fingers rubbing against each other searching for scars that were no longer there. Heat tinged my face before I came within a hundred spans.

The efforts of lone industry hissed, clanged and roared as I ducked my frame into the entrance of the smelter, hair catching in the stone edge. Had I changed that much in the preceding years that I had forgotten the short doorways of El’mas?

The darkness shimmered as I peered deeper within, attempting to discern a figure against the red-hot glow fed by gas from the city’s long abandoned and scarred core. A suggestion of a shadow bent over a frame, gloved hands white against the whiter glow of molten glass.

I pulled back, hesitant at how I should greet this person. It certainly took the basic shape of an original hu’thr’im—a shape I preferred and had returned to—with four limbs and single head. Would they be startled by my appearance or voice if they had been alone for so long? My plan had not been to encounter the city’s new caretaker, but enter El’mas, genuflect to the Spire, find my mordant corner of the city, and let my shi’vah go to the sky.

I stood in the doorway of the smelter, neck and chest prickling, nose twitching against gas and lime, hair standing on end from the heat and the taste of a static charge I had not felt in a very long time.

I hesitated, awaiting the figure to conclude manipulating the pouring arm before I approached or spoke, but a voice that could quell the fifteen hundred degree fire struck out of the darkness.

“I know you’re there. Your neurals are so loud, I could hear you coming from klicks away.” The shadow stood back from the shimmering molten frame which retracted on articulated arms towards the annealing oven.

A flush overlaid the heat on my face. Were my thoughts clumsy and bleeding in my advanced age? Who was this person so intent on this painstaking revival of the old glass-making ways? And that voice, it whispered of an old enemy I had never met but knew so well...

“Fa’zhil,” I whispered horrified. “You? You’re still alive? You built this?” My hand suggested the glowering monument outside which only moments ago gleamed with honour.

The shadow resolved into a short, slight man, hair peppered black and white and skin dusky smooth as the day I saw him last atop the twenty-four steps overseeing the destruction of my beloved El’mas, engorged on his misplaced confidence in the city’s core we had brutalized and angered.

I watched in dreaded fascination as he ceremoniously peeled off thick grey gloves to reveal the hands of an artisan, as white as the sands outside the city walls, skin criss-crossed with innumerable tiny scars.

“Of course I’m alive,” he replied facetiously, stepping closer to peer up into my face. “You’re not talking to a shi’vah are you? But ahh, look at you, trembling like a ma’thr’im at his first time. You think you do!” He gave a chuckle for my sour visage. “Ahh, I understand. The last thing you expected to find here was the person who destroyed the jewel of the Hu’thr’im.”

I shifted back a step, the flame of my discomfort and ineffectiveness still raw despite my years of experience in the debating chamber. However, I did not turn and walk away though my instincts screamed that I should run and I would be better off with a death out in the desert, because the bitter man before me had said something that did not ring true.

“You speak of the most grievous sin of our people as if you do not believe it anymore,” I tried softly, and was mollified to see the Destructor of my city, the man who nearly wiped out the entire Hu’thr’im race, a man of stone and glass and steel, wince.

“You were fa’thr’im then, were you not?” Fa’zhil covered his shame and clumsy probe at my neurals by pushing forward, reaching as if to hit me. His hand however flashed by and came away with a bottle—an elegant thing of hand blown blue glass—from which he took a deep draught. How odd, I had never imagined Fa’zhil needing victuals and bodily sustenance. He always struck me as otherly, a god, a Thing easy to take its name in vain.

I positioned myself carefully in the doorway, already used to the raging fire at my front and cool anticipation at my back, and cocked my head to regard the Sah’hor’o before me.

“Of that I am proud,” I replied, stiffening my trained voice though my gullet trembled in the presence of the man who once would have seen me and mine dead for his grand aspirations.

I reached deep within to stoke the fires of anger, but it had been too long and Fa’zhil stood before me somehow broken in body and power, though he looked almost the same as when I saw him last, shards of The Spire raining around him. A flash of memory, wrenched from within me: those shards twisting on a howl of wind towards my beloved Joh’quim, embedding deeply into his flesh...

I shook myself, shook the long dead out of my head, and Fa’zhil smiled. Again, the smile only whispered at his once-power. “I understand.” He said simply, nodding as if acknowledging my pain, but did nothing.

“How, why, are you here?” I demanded, my voice steadier by the moment as this great man diminished before me, losing his power over me.

“I would ask the same of you.” He pushed some buttons on a panel then brushed past me, not quite touching, to reach the coolness of the city outside. A charge, something residual and old, quickened between us as he passed, but died just as quickly.

I turned—back now hot, mouth sucking in coolness—to watch him breathe in the dead air and stretch his back with a satisfying click. “What are you doing to El’mas? Why is it letting you? Have you not done enough already?” I made my demand again.

He faced me with hands on hips, a lopsided smile hinting at the old sneer bisecting his unnaturally smooth countenance. “Such questions! Though I would have thought that obvious.” His hand described the nearby glass tower, a weight in my mind. “I am rebuilding this once glorious city.”

I drew my brows together, forehead tight and sore from the long trek through the arid desert. The words did not sound rehearsed, but Fa’zhil had had plenty of time to make up a justification for his inexplicable actions. “But why? You who once did everything within your power and more to distress El’mas’s core beyond its natural limits. You who would destroy—” I could not go on as the memory I had kept so smooth over the years shattered into a thousand pieces like the Spire shards that had ripped Joh’quim apart.

Fa’zhil—The Almighty, The Bountiful, One of Twenty-Four—searched for the words with a small twitch of his right shoulder. “Because I am lonely.” This lilted up like a question as if the emotion came from a place only made of myth and secrecy. “Because I loved this city just as much as you. Because I made a mistake.”

I gaped at Fa’zhil—The Ignorant, The Vainglorious, The Destructor—and could not push the words past my teeth. A mistake? A mistake is not serving your beloved mint tea amongst rumpled sheets after a night on the wine. A mistake is a slip of the calligraphy pen and having to discard a precious scroll.

Overseeing the destruction of your people through pure egomania and cutting them off from the rest of the galaxy for generations, unrepentant and unable to grasp their growing and superior technical abilities, is not a mistake.

My boots schiffed and clacked against marble and sand as I strode away. I had to leave this man lest I do something I would regret without the chance of atonement before I allowed my soul to return to A’lah’hah.

Without landmarks to guide me and anger hazing my vision, it took me a long time to find the street even though my feet had found it numerous times in my dreams. Only the blocky suggestion of foundation-outlined rooms remained, small dunes of white sand sifting and sighing.

As I stood before what had once been my front door, it took me a long moment of scuffing my boot toe in a recalcitrant fashion to realize that the dark pitch of street was not scarred with cracks that surely should be there. I compared this realization to my overconfident stroll up the causeway, and discovered the marble absent too of cracks.

The ground murmured and rocked as if to agree with my assessment, and a small, ungrieving part of my mind probed at the sah’hara embedded in this new, stronger ground.

“This was your house.”

The statement, not question, came from a few spans behind me, and try as I might I could not help but flinch. “Yes,” I hissed, pacing the spans of the invisible rooms. “This was my office. Here, my ma’thr’im’s quarters. This is where the surrogate lived. And the nursery—” My words caught a jagged edge.

“You had a surrogate?” If a knife of a voice could soften, this one became a blunted blade.

“We were pregnant at the time,” I whispered.

“So were we,” Fa’zhil whispered back.

I spun on my heel, fists clenched and trembling. “Do not pretend to know me!” I shouted. “Do not pretend to care, you snake in the sand!”

Fa’zhil turned his face as if slapped. Perhaps my neurals lashed out at the same time as my words, a failure of constraint and age. He nodded away the accusation.

I squeezed my eyes closed and brow tight, awaiting the bolt of death to hit me, perhaps more glass, my shi’vah to dissipate into the cold air without ceremony or care. But it did not come.

Fa’zhil said: “I am sorry, my la’thri.”

I opened one eye, then the other. I must have looked a comical sight, standing there eyes and mouth wide, but The Destructor did not laugh or throw insolence my way.

The words hung in the air, and Fa’zhil did not feel the need to repeat himself. He had used the non-gendered term of endearment for sibling, friend, or partner, one which he had no right to.

“How long has it been?” Fa’zhil asked in a voice that struggled to lose its blade tip as he stood quite still in that bare street.

As if he did not know. I enumerated the years anyhow. “It is five thousand, two hundred and thirty-six, PD.”

Post Destructor. Post Fa’zhil.

“How many?”

I tilted my head just so, eyes narrowing, and I moved forward as if the distance between us clouded my gentle probing. How could he not know? “We entered your newly created desert with some one hundred and twenty thousand. We left four moons later with nineteen thousand.”

Fa’zhil closed his own eyes, the corners crinkling and lids twitching as if reliving the images he had never seen. “Less than a quarter survived.”

“You did that,” I pushed with my words and mind, quite inelegantly.

“I know,” he replied, just as artlessly.

I stopped my slow pace a couple of spans from the man—not a Sah’hor’o, but flesh and blood and neurals—contemplating drawing my ceremonial knife hidden in the red sash at my waist and setting it to his throat.

“You do not want to do that,” he said, almost too quiet beneath the roaring silence of the city.

“And why not?” I looked down my nose though the effect must have been comical again, tricks of a much younger self.

“Because I am about to start re-building the academy and I am tired. I need help. Reclaiming El’mas from the desert is too much of a job for one person.” His salt-and-pepper head dropped a fraction.

I glanced at the gleaming tower, visible from all directions in the flattened city. “You built that?” I asked, incredulous.

He held up his scarred hands in reply, and then let them fall to his sides as if all energy had left his arms.

“But you could have used your sah’hara, tapped the core, had the entire city rebuilt within days!” I accused. “If we had known you were here—”

“You would have killed me and the sands of El’mas would forever be tainted with the backlash of my power.” A little arrogance remained, the truth embedded in that pride. The sands would have had to be cleansed before being reshaped back into what they had once been—stone, bricks, glass. I was struck by what a monumental task Fa’zhil had undertaken in the last five centuries to simply erect the gates, walls and Spire. “And besides, we owed it to our la’thr’im core not to further abuse the wonders we crossed a galaxy to find.”

The earth rumbled its thanks. We found our balance with outstretched arms and Fa’zhil gave a humourless chuckle. “I promised I would never do that to you again, dear heart,” he murmured, falling to one knee and dropping kissed fingers to the ground.

I watched this curious ceremony, perplexed and torn. I wanted to step back out into the desert, open my cloak and sheath my dagger in my breast as I had planned to do for so long once I knew my neurals were failing. But here there was hope, a final meaningful task to honour my beloveds, ma’thri and fa’thri alike, now passed...

Fa’zhil rose slowly, carefully, from his genuflect, steel-grey eyes raising further to clasp mine. “Join me,” he said simply.

“I do not trust you,” I argued.

“Neither did I for the longest time.” He held out his right hand. I stared at the texture of scars, a raised relief showing centuries of penance.

“I could kill you.” More arguments.

“And that is your right,” The Destructor replied, at peace with the idea.

“I am old,” I said, digging deep now for excuses.

Fa’zhil, with his right hand still out stretched, brushed his left up and down his torso. “Something else the la’thri core and I have been negotiating.” I then noticed how the tips of his fingers glimmered ever so faintly with a built up static charge.

Did he mean to kill or cure me? What had this man been studying all these years? Who had he been communicating with via that prismatic crystal atop the tower?

My eyes drifting upwards must have betrayed my further questions, and this time Fa’zhil’s laugh strayed near the prettiness of the crystal that drew my gaze.

“Oh yes, it is the original,” he confirmed, heretofore unheard respect drawing my eyes back down to his so he could assert the truth. “I had to speak gently and walk softly with the la’thr’im core, but it eventually gave it back to me—to us—with an augury.”

“Why did you never tell—” I began, but cut myself off with my own truth, and he nodded. He would have been killed and all that he had gained would have been lost.

“What do you know that we do not? About the core, the galaxy?”

“As much as I do not know about what the hu’thr’im have become.”

“We are almost a billion souls now,” I said, hoping the threat of my children would be enough to quell any desire in him to rise up again, our numbers and great knowledge a caution.

But the desire to kill did not remain, only one to rebuild. His hand still poised, he moved his eyes—a movement now almost spiritual—to The Spire. “I have built it—”

“—and they will come.” Would the message cut through the ever swirling cloud of sand that blanketed thousands of klicks between the abandoned—no, the rebirthed—city and the nearest hu’thr’im outpost?

“You came. You heard its call.”

“That I did.” I looked down at the unwavering hand, then up into grey eyes, hard as steel, soft as the near-forgotten sea.

I took the hand, and suppressed a jump as a pulse passed from skin to skin. The ground gave a sigh of approval. I took in a deep breath for the task ahead.

“My name is A’harim,” I said as I stepped back, unsure of what to say next with the former Destructor of my people, but knew it would all come from a place of anger, grief, acceptance and forgiveness, if not in any tidy order. I would not forget, and neither would the core.

A spare smile, unpractised in its child-like insecurity, passed from lips to eyes.

“My name is As’ih’nan,” the Rebuilder said.

 [ Falling to one knee, © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ]

© 2012 A.J. Fitzwater

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