I fled from Azyr that night with haste and little else. I did not stop to weigh myself down with the meagre treasures of a life now lost to me, or with preparations for some unthought tomorrow. I was burdened only with guilt, and it lent desperate speed to my flight.
I travelled by day and night, with little thought to a destination. The only direction that mattered was away from that gleaming city. Sleep brought no respite, so I did little of it. Bleeding feet were less painful than the guilt that hounded my steps. They soon grew numb, then hardened anyways. I crossed gated cities and savage wilds, and after a time, like all the other detritus of the realms, found myself upon the banks of the Ur-River. The waters carried me ever further from the light, and soon I lost myself upon it. I let it carry me to the very edge.
I found myself adrift then upon a sea of shadows. The river’s current was gone, lost in these vast waters. Mist hung thickly in the air, clinging to the sides of massive ice floes. Mountains of it, blue-green and possessed of some deep internal witch-light, would suddenly rear themselves from the fog like titanic beasts. Smaller chunks rapped against the side of my small vessel like bony knuckles. I simply let the craft drift as it would. There was no direction - I had neither the skill to navigate these waters, nor any further goal. If there was any place furthest from the light of the Heavens, this was it. I drifted, in mind and body. Shadows twisted in the mists, haunting forms dredged from memory, yet there was nowhere else to flee. My memories here are as substantial as the mists. Sleep and waking blurred, haunted by the same shadows. I must have eaten, but have no memory of it. I must have found water, yet can recall no pangs of thirst. I had become little more than a wraith, cursed all the more to be trapped still in a breathing body.
My reverie was broken by the soft grinding of stone on wood. I forced myself to rise from the bottom of the boat, curiosity driving what numb and sunken muscles would not. A shore of black stones stretched around me. I had no memory of arriving, yet the rocks had worn away at my small craft. I started to rise, then fell back in shock. Above me, looming from the mist like a colossal sentinel of this desolate shore, stood a monolith of black stone. Salt clung to its sides and frost crowned its brow, yet beneath it could be made out the barest outline of humanoid features staring out to the sea. Nothing more could be seen of the maker’s intent, no identity left in their work, yet its hollow eyes and raised features could not be mistaken. Looking up and down the beach, at the barest edges of vision allowed in the mists, stood two more monoliths, and though I could not see the details I had no doubt at all I would find the same vacant faces staring outwards upon them. Beyond, an island rose like a darker wave within the fog, and with only the unending shadow sea beyond, I determined to make my way inland. Anything, I thought, to escape the judging glare of those featureless faces.
The island rose upwards from the water’s edge, the smooth black stones of the shore giving way to hard gray bedrock I could not name. Crustaceous lichens in all the colours of rusting metal clung to ground around saw-like sedge grass. The climb was slow and hard, the moss uncertain beneath my feet, yet the further I rose the more the mist thinned. A scent upon the wind then caught me off guard, and for a moment I nearly stumbled upon the rocky slope as my mind flashed back to pleasant days, warm and well rested, in the gin halls of my youth. They seemed like memories of a stranger’s life to me now. Shadow-memories, I thought, intent on steering my footfalls astray, yet looking around I saw a small tree rising defiantly from the rocks. With careful steps I climbed towards it, and rubbed the thin gray-green needles between my fingers. Juniper. Simply juniper, and the memories I had brought with me. I sat a moment more, savouring the scent, then looked ahead.
Rising from the mist, the island at last resolved itself before me. I stood upon a ridge line, and from this vantage looked out across a shattered city, its ebon shades of weather-aged stone lined in bright frost-white. Ice hung upon that place like a mantle. It flowed down streets and through broken-sided buildings like a vast wave frozen in time. Razor-edged ridges crested over broken walls, its edges honed in the arctic winds and burning white. Towards the heart of the city, the deep ice took on a sea-green hue, the black stone buildings bound within like vague skeletons. There were no fire lights, no smoke or sound to beckon the wayward home. It was a dead place. Yet, as I watched, the blue-green glimmer of the city’s frozen heart seemed to stir, like the sunlight playing across the facets of a kingly jewel. Yet there was no sunlight here. The ghost of fires, perhaps, or the stirrings of dreamer. Not dead then, but sleeping. I had to continue forwards. There was no choice in the matter.
The city’s walls rose to greet my approach like rows of broken teeth. Blackened and worn with time, even I could not help but see the craftsmanship that had once gone into their construction. The cold now was bitter, gone from the bone-chill of the sea to a scouring of claws across my face. I could feel the skin of my lips freezing with each exhale. It rolled from the city like waves, radiating out from the stones. In places it had cracked them, sending twisting webs of bright white frost across the dark face of the stone. Where the walls were broken, they had been breached from within, from icy talons finding purchase in the stone.
The gateway into the city was unbarred. One great door, once of oak or some other hearty wood and bounded with inscribed iron, lay cast upon its side on the road beyond. Of the other there was no sign. No sentinels guarded the entrance, living or dead. Enter, if that is really what you wish, or so I imagined the gate to say.
Long I wandered the streets of that city. I still would not say the place was dead, not while the memory of that phantom glimmering heart held in my mind, yet I found death enough within. Skeletal forms huddled in shattered doorways or around long-dead fires. Some were rimed with frost, others wholly consumed by the ice. All were old, the long and quiet dead. Yet as I walked, I began to see the layers to this place. The old stone, timeworn as it was, was the bones of this ancient place. Carved by a master’s hand, it had been laid as the foundation to whatever this city once was. The deepest ice, sea-green and salt-hardened, had been formed around it. Yet since then there had been other constructions here. Cruder stonework had been raised in places against those old walls, as if newer and courser hands had come and built upon the slumbering corpse. I saw in places the marks of rough tools upon the old stone and deep ice. Crude wooden shelters, preserved yet brittle from the cold, leaned in the eddies of the buildings. All across the ruins, messages were carved into the city’s walls. In hundreds of tongues and by thousands of hands, in runes familiar and alien, the words of the dead were written in stone. How many had come to this place? How long had it been buried in this ice? Were they fleeing, as I, and sought haven in this desolation? Or were they treasure hunters, seeking the bounty of these ancient masters who had raised its walls? The bones told all there was to tell of their success.
No matter how long I wandered its twisting streets, I found myself no closer to the city’s heart. Walls of ice or collapsed stone barred my passage, forcing me to double back, retread my steps and try another avenue, yet when I did the streets never seemed to look the same. I would explore some new passageway, some chasm in the ice or squeeze through a broken wall, only to find myself back where I had been hours ago. It was as though the shadows of the sea had found me again, and were intent on barring my passage further. Yet the thought of that dreaming glimmer filled me. What fire could lie at the heart of such a place? How many of those around me had asked that same question. I looked again at the forgotten piles of bone, then turned back towards the sea.
True night was falling as I walked, yet with it came a sight I have never seen the equal to in all the realms. Vast ribbons of fire filled the air, green at first and waving like silk, their edges turning to coruscating purple flames. Then the colours shifted again, roiling like spilled dyes across a sky of midnight fire. I crested the rise again, looking down at the lines of vacant faces staring out to sea, and my boat down among them, the fog at last burned away by the blazing lights. The city, I knew, was behind me, and that sleeping fire of its secret heart would be ablaze with the dancing sky. Yet I could not turn to look, for if I did I would be lost to its glamour. My bones would lie forgotten in its ice. I would not be the one to awaken it, I knew that. That would be someone else’s story.