A Meeting in the Desert (Citadel of the Last Gathering Supplemental #2)

A Meeting in the Desert
By: Erin L. Snyder

Hailasha’s sandals sunk as she moved through the desert. Beads tied to her staff with leather straps rattled with each step. The wind whistled, bringing with it flecks of sand that cut against her skin. In the cold night air, they felt like hailstones.

Thirty years earlier, perhaps her water would have been empty, but this was the twelfth time she’d crossed this desert, not the first, and she’d learned to ration. She’d learned many things over the years, and this was one. Not the most important, by far, but a valuable and hard-earned lesson.

Still, she was thirsty. Five gourds hung empty from her neck, along with one full and another nearly empty, and she’d still two days before she would reach the southern edge.

When she crested a sandbank and found herself gazing down at a pool, she thought for a moment she must be imagining it. But Hailasha was not one to be misled by a mirage, and this was no dream.

She slid made her way down the hill to the water, knelt on the ground, and laid her staff to one side and the first of her many packs to the other. She dipped her hands in the silver water and washed her face, hands, and arms, before drinking deep. Then she began filling her gourds, whistling and laughing as she did so.

Then the sand shook, and a sound like a massive wave erupted behind her. She dropped the gourd she’d been filling and grabbed her staff off the ground, spinning as quickly as her old joints would allow. The very hill she’d walked down was shifting, rising up and falling away to reveal the form of a massive torso, head, and arm. The mouth, large enough to swallow her whole, opened, and a booming voice demanded, “Who has defiled my home?”

Hailasha breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to the pool. She shifted her grip on her staff, which housed the power of ten mages, and used it to fish the gourd she’d dropped out of the water.

“I am Lit-Reen-Dor, the Ancient,” the voice proclaimed. “And I will have a sacrifice for this trespass.”

“I have heard of you,” Hailasha said, wringing some of the water out of the strap. “You startled me for a moment, but I am not afraid of you.”

“There will be a blood sacrifice, or I will slaughter you all,” Lit-Reen-Dor proclaimed. “You may choose the offering, but if it does not please me, all your lives will be forfeit.”

Hailasha snickered. “There is only one of me,” she said loudly, filling the next gourd. “Am I to sacrifice myself then?”

“So shall it be,” the ancient one proclaimed.

“It shall not be,” Hailasha replied.

“Then I shall water the sands with your blood.”

Hailasha finished filling her gourd and turned to look at the giant. Its body was made of stone, textured and colored like sand itself. She should simply leave, she knew, and yet it had been days since she’d spoken to anything. Even this was better than solitude.

“I have killed wizards and brought towers to the ground,” she said. “I am not scared of you.”

“I am no wizard. I am the eternal watcher of this desert. Endless, all-powerful - I existed before the flowers bloomed. Before the first snows fell. And so shall I ever be. My words are law, and I will have what is mine. If you will not spill your own blood, I shall do it for you.” He shifted forward slightly then stopped.

“Can you even stand?” she asked, calmly.

“There is nothing I cannot do,” Lit-Reen-Dor said, his voice booming.

“Your right arm is gone,” Hailasha said, and there is a deep crack through your remaining eye. I cannot tell what has become of your legs - you are still half-buried in the sand - but I doubt they are whole. I am sorry, Lit-Reen-Dor, but you are not as you were.”

“All that has ever been existed by my will.”

“You believe that, don’t you?” Hailasha asked. The amusement she’d felt upon first encountering the ancient desert guardian was fading, and a part of her was beginning to feel pity. It had no more chosen its lot in life than she had.

“All is as I proclaim,” Lit-Reen-Dor said.

“If that were so, you would have come over here and squashed me. Crushed me beneath your working thumb or bit me in two or… I don’t know, commanded the sands to tear me to bits.”

“You try my patience, little one.”

“You are no god,” Hailasha said softly. “You are… I do not know what you are, but it is not that. A wizard made you, in all likelihood, and left you here eons ago. Neither knew nor cared you’d last this long. And if you ever knew the truth, you’ve forgotten. But look at yourself, at this place. Look at what is happening!”

“I must have my sacrifice,” he said.

“Not from me,” Hailasha replied. “I am sorry, but I like living too much. When I am finished resting, I will take my things and leave. With this water, even, and I will go to the south. I do not think I will ever come back across this desert.”

“I cannot allow that,” Lit-Reen-Dor said.

“You should think about leaving, as well,” Hailasha said, “assuming you can still move.”

“These lands are mine, now and forever.”

“No. They are not. I am not sure if you can see at all, but… if you look to the north, you will see it. A wall of ice taller than the mountains lies on the horizon. In Elpinehole they place posts in the ground every autumn. And every spring, they find more have been swallowed up. It is coming, and the mountains will not stop it. It may take a thousand years for the ice to reach this place, but it will come. And it will destroy you. It will grind you into dust, just as you’ve driven to dust the bones of those who came here.”

“If such ice exists, I will break it apart. None may enter my domain unbidden. For I am Lit-Reen-Dor, god of sands and eternity. I am he who shall not be defied!”

“I am sorry, Lit-Reen-Dor. Perhaps you were a god once. Perhaps you are still as much a god as any other who claims the title. But I do not think you will survive this. If you will not leave, god or no, you will join the sands.”

Hailasha gathered up her things and tied them to her pack. She lifted her staff, which held the memory of a thousand deaths along with the knowledge and power of ten mages, and she used it to support the weight of her aging body. Then she looked again upon the god of sands and sighed.

For all of history, he had existed here - in ancient tombs, she’d read stories of travelers killing each other or even themselves to sate his bloodlust. She’d read of an army, three thousand years before, which had come to kill the god, only to fall to his might.

Now, he was a relic, unwilling or perhaps unable to move, blind to the wave of ice sweeping over the world. Hailasha’s magic might sustain her for a hundred years; perhaps two hundred, if she was lucky. But in the end, she would die long before Lit-Reen-Dor. And yet, she mourned him deeply. He was cruel and senseless, and yet he was a part of this desert, which was part of this world. Someday, long after she was gone, Lit-Reen-Dor would be buried beneath the coming ice. And so, too, would his desert be swallowed. And the mountains beyond, and the forests and lakes and seas… and then one day the world.

This, she decided, was to be the end of all things. Of history and men and magic. None of this was new to her - she’d pondered the coming ice for years. But standing here, speaking to a being who had lasted eons, made the future seem short.

As for Lit-Reen-Dor, he continued calling out to her, demanding the sacrifice he was owed.

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