I watch the worm wriggling its way up from the sand.
Its fronded head sways this way and that as it tastes the air, sensing the ewer of water I keep by my bedside amid the pile of scrolls, bone styluses, and ink pots. The water is two days old, gritty with dust from a well that is dry more often than not—but the worm won’t care.
I admire its courage, emerging from its home beneath the sand before a creature hundreds, if not thousands, of times its size. It must surely know I could crush it beneath my sandaled foot, but it has no fear of me. A hair-fine tongue emerges as the worm eases itself through the hole in the threadbare rug covering the floor of my humble abode.
The rug was a last gift from my mother before I left Kenethet as an apprentice stonemason in the employ of Arch-Mason Nouria. Even as a young man, my skill with a chisel, rasp, and file was well known, and had earned me first place in the annual Feast of the Ascended, where I carved a likeness of Setaka.
It had also drawn the attention of the Arch-Mason, whose great carvings adorned the carved frontage of Magyett Sadja’s silk palace in Nashramae, and the Sun Temple of Bel'zhun. Some said she had even sculpted the likenesses of great men and women across the ocean in a city where the streets were paved in gold and great machines of magic did the work of ten strong men. I do not know if I truly believe these latter tales, for Nouria never speaks of any work she has done beyond the sands of Shurima.
I remember the moment she lifted my statue vividly, though it is close to twenty years ago now...
“How did you choose the look of the queen of the god-warriors?” she asked, her voice not yet worn thin by the years and her lungs not yet ravaged by the dust of her great work. “No true likenesses have ever been found of Setaka.”
I had been prepared for that question and replied with my carefully rehearsed answer.
“I dreamed of her,” I said, with the earnestness of youth. “I dreamed I saw her lead the Last Charge, and she turned to me just before I awoke, her head haloed by the setting sun.”
“A fine answer, young man,” she said, “but I happen to recognize this face. If I’m not mistaken, this is a sand-maiden working in the employ of Benida-Marah.”
I blushed, caught in my lie.
But Arch-Mason Nouria only laughed and said, “Don’t be abashed, boy. You’re not the first artist to use their lover as a model.”
She turned my sculpture this way and that, running her fingertips over the stone and nodding, judging my work and, apparently, finding it worthy.
“How would you like to be my apprentice?” she asked.
I left Kenethet the next day, following the Arch-Mason across the northern reaches of the Sai Kahleek, to Xolan.To where the faceless god awaited.
I pour a small amount of water onto the ground near the worm before strapping my tool belt around my waist. It hangs loose over my hips, and I fear I may need to use my awl to punch another hole in the leather. Our food is not plentiful, and if the trade caravans do not pass our way, we sometimes go weeks with our meager supplies strictly rationed.
I leave the worm wriggling happily in his little pool, pleased to have been able to help him survive. Every living thing deserves its chance to exist. I am reminded of the mendicant preacher who passed through our town last year, and told me that even the smallest creatures are part of the Great Weaver’s plan.
I wonder what became of her, for she seemed in a great hurry.
Putting her and the worm from my mind, I head outside, feeling the heat of the day even though the sun is still to fully rise. The sky is a velvety blue, a few stars still glittering in pleasing patterns above.
A gust of cold air disturbs the stone dust that swoops in playful spirals along the street. The wind carries the smell of something foul, like spoiled meat or rancid milk, and I wonder if some wild animal is lying dead somewhere nearby.
The ground hereabouts is rocky and mostly inhospitable, but there are signs it was once abundantly fertile and used to raise crops and graze animals. The Shuriman desert is far from the lifeless wasteland many outsiders believe it to be; it has a vibrant ecosystem of flora and fauna, some dangerous, some entirely harmless. Thankfully, we are untroubled by dangerous predators or bandits in Xolan, in part thanks to our remoteness, but also because the elder stonemasons tell us Xolaani herself watches over us, protecting us so that we might restore her to glory.
Work starts early, and scores of yawning masons are already making their way to the great cliff to carry out their assigned tasks. We share morning greetings before scattering to our assigned duties around or upon the great statue.
And though I have seen it every day for the last two decades, it still has the power to take my breath away.
The rock rises vertically in a solid escarpment, a towering wall of ochre stone, layered in wind-worn knife-like outcroppings. Some of those we have cut from the cliff to create our canvas, others we have left as great windbreaks to better preserve our work.
And what work it is! The statue of Ascended Xolaani is, quite literally, a towering achievement.
Around three hundred yards from her carven feet to her shorn neck, the statue carved into the cliff had been all but worn away by centuries of neglect when I first laid eyes upon it. A passing traveler might even have missed it, were their eyes fixed too warily on the horizon.
The wind softened the detail of the sculpted robes wrapped around her legs, and a long-ago rockfall smashed portions of the kaftan billowing around her outflung arms like wings.
But most grievously of all, some ancient wound slashed clean through her carven stone face, leaving no hint as to the god-warrior’s true likeness. This legend from Shurima’s past has remained faceless for uncounted centuries, but we—the stonemasons of Xolan—are poised to finally restore her to glory once more.If only we could agree on her true face.
“Water and shade to you, Arch-Mason,” I say, climbing onto the lift platform at the base of the cliff.
“Water and shade to you, Mennas,” Arch-Mason Nouria replies, without looking up. “You’re late.”
She says this to me every morning now, a habit she has fallen into lately, though I have never given her a reason to accuse me of tardiness.
“I was slaking the thirst of a worm,” I say.
“Yes, it comes by every morning, looking for water.”
“And you give it some?”
She shakes her head, but I can see the idea of me keeping a worm as a pet amuses her.
I crane my neck, looking up the length of the statue. This close to the cliff, it is impossible to make out the details, but as we rise we will be able to see the stonework.
A network of scaffolding clings to the face of the cliff like the web of a spider, the wood brought at great expense from the jungles of the east, and the greener lands south of the mountains. Tempered ironwood beams and steps hammered into the rock allow masons to climb to where they need to work. A series of pulleys and ropes serve as an elevator to reach the highest portions of the statue.
It is there that Arch-Mason Nouria and I will be working today.
“Ready?” she asks.
I untie the loops of ropes securing the lift mechanism, and allow the counterweight rope to pull free of its moorings on the lift platform. The whole contraption judders, and I count the knots as we ascend, each one marking a twelve-foot interval.
I sit at the edge of the platform, relishing the increasing sense of height as we rise.
The town of Xolan is not large, a collection of perhaps two hundred souls clustered around a murky lake and patches of greenery that provide a little shade and some fruit from time to time. To live so far from the cities is hard, but what we do here is more important than any human comforts we might miss. Our dwellings are all finely made, as you would expect from a community of stonemasons, each uniquely crafted by the artisans within and reflective of their character and style. My own house is humble, its understated aesthetic reminiscent of my mother’s home in Kenethet.
A work-yard lies at the sunward edge of our town, filled with rock cut from the cliff, fallen boulders, and larger pieces of new, decorative stonework that have yet to be lifted into place.
Were we all to vanish tomorrow, its many statues, carvings, and master-worked blocks would stand as a testament to our life’s work.
A wide channel cuts through the heart of our town, running from the rubble-choked base of the cliff in a zig-zagging manner before disappearing beneath the sands of the Sai Kahleek. Shards of stone and sand fill its length, but I have seen pictures that show this channel was once awash with running water.
If the stories of therestoring the ancient city of Shurima to life are true, then little of his liquid bounty has come our way. But when we have restored the faceless god, the channel will once again flow with healing waters, and we will be lauded for our part in the land’s restoration.
“Tell me of Xolaani,” says Nouria, her eyes somewhere far away.
I have been waiting for this, and turn to smile at her.
This is another habit she has fallen into—having me recite the history of the god-warrior as we ascend. I do not mind indulging her, for it is good to remember why we do this, why we have all devoted our lives to restoring the face of the Ascended, even if much of what we know is fragmentary.
“Xolaani was said to be the daughter of a healer,” I begin, closing my eyes and tilting my head to the east, “a child born under the Aspect of the Protector at an auspicious passage of the sun. She lived in a time of great change for Shurima, when the war against the vile thaumaturges had just begun, and the armies of the emperor had suffered a great defeat before the walls of Icathia.
“Great was the suffering, and Xolaani worked tirelessly to save as many lives as she could, speaking out against the folly of emperors that still drove the tribes of the sun to make war with one another.”
Nouria nods, her eyes drifting over the horizon, as if seeing something I can not.
Is it my imagination, or do I detect a milkiness to the once sapphire-blue of her eyes...?
Sensing my scrutiny, she turns away. “Go on.”
“It is said that she saved hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives, but mourned that they were saved only to be sent back into the fighting. Some say she even spoke out against the emperor, calling him a warmonger and a despot.”
“Your tone tells me you find that unlikely,” says Nouria.
“If she spoke out against the emperor, why would he later agree to her being gifted with Ascension?”
“It was not the emperor who decreed who would rise to meet the sun, but the priests who read the augurs and charted the course of the future in the beams of its golden light. Rare would it be for any emperor to defy the will of the sun.”
“But not unheard of?”
She coughs, her lungs still weak from the fever that struck her last winter.
“No, not unheard of,” she says finally. “All too easy for one to manipulate the other. But keep going. Tell me what became of Xolaani when Shurima fell. Tell me about the conflict that followed.”
I’ve never needed to tell this part of the story. We always reach our destination before the details of Xolaani’s history grow more obscure. But now, with us bound for the missing face of the god-warrior, I have no choice but to continue.
The Arch-Mason catches my hesitation. “You have studied this, yes?”
“I have,” I assure her, “but many of our scrolls are incomplete, or wilfully opaque, filled with stories that are clearly exaggerated, or possibly entirely fabricated.”
“Tell me anyway.”
I nod and try to piece what fragments I have been able to gather into a coherent narrative, but I already know I will disappoint her.
“It is said there was a war. That without the Hawk Emperor, Azir, to guide them, a great conflict erupted between the Ascended Host—one the scrolls say almost tore the world apart.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I do not know,” I say, honestly. “History is full of conflicts that speak of world-ending threats, and while I am sure they would have been terrible to live through, the idea of them all being so cataclysmic feels... unlikely.”
“You may be right, but the long passage of the years has a tendency to dim the fires of such wars in the memory. What part did Xolaani play in this conflict?”
“Nothing certain,” I reply. “I have found little mention of her taking part in the wars between the god-warriors and those who would become known and feared as Darkin. There are veiled references to a being known as Ta’anari begging her to intervene and save the lives of the fallen. In some tellings she refuses, but others say she chose to bestow her healing gifts on those she deemed worthy, that she knew the innermost secrets of blood so deeply she could even return the dead to life. A final tale speaks of how she angered the most vicious of the Darkin, who struck her a fateful blow that laid her low for many centuries.”
Nouria knows much more of Xolaani than I, but likes to hear me tell the stories, as though being reminded helps carve them deeper into her memory.
In truth, I wonder if her mind has reached the point where these retellings are new to her each day... if she has begun the slow descent into her dotage.
I am spared further questions when the lift arrives at our destination.
Locking the ropes in place and hauling the restraining bar into position, we carefully step out onto the rocky ledge that runs around the colossal shoulders of the faceless god-warrior.
When the work is finally complete, the ledge will be hacked away and smoothed off, but for now it serves as our vantage point. I look down, unfazed by the dizzying drop.
I imagine what Xolan would look like were the waters to flow again.
A faded illustration in one of the elder stonemasons’ books shows water tumbling from the top of the cliff and falling in graceful arcs to either side of the great statue. In that picture, the small lake at the heart of our community is wide and full, its waters a wondrous shade of cerulean blue that narrows until it becomes a river flowing out into Shurima.
It is my hope that if we can divine the true face of Xolaani, that river will live again.I hope to see the water soon.
Whatever fears I might harbor regarding Arch-Mason Nouria’s mind, she has lost none of her skill with the tools of her trade. Her hands may be tanned and leather-tough from years of practicing her craft, but they are graceful like no others when it comes to working the stone.
We are applying the last touches to the collar, layering in deeper folds that will cast a shadow that can be seen from the ground. It is an illusion, an old stonemason’s trick she taught me the first day I worked the rock of the cliff.
Today’s labors are more suited to that of a journeyman than a skilled mason like Nouria—but I sense that she needs to be working with her hands today, to be close to the stone.
All that remains to be carved is the statue’s face, but what features she should possess is a question upon which none of the stonemasons of Xolan can agree. The illustration depicting the waterfall is the only guide we have, and the face behind it is indistinct, hidden by the spray of water. Every mason within the village has sought to bring forth the truth of her visage in dreams, in drink, in prayer, but no consensus has yet been reached.
By mid-afternoon, there is little left for us to do, so we sit on the lip of the ledge, looking out over the undulant horizon. The sky is now a lush azure, the sun a copper disc descending in the west. The dunes ripple in the heat, as if disturbed from below.
In the deepest desert, sandswimmers leave hissing grooves in their wake—but here the bedrock is too close to the surface for them, so we rarely see the sand spouts that mark their passing.
“How do you think the meeting will go tonight?” asks the Arch-Mason, breaking my train of thought.
“Much like the others, I suspect.”
“I hear that Elder Bourai believes he is close to a likeness we may all agree upon.”
“You said that about Mason Ulantor’s proposal last month.”
“Yes, and Master Regouma’s the time before that.”
“Ah, yes, I did, didn’t I?” she says sadly. “All the more reason for this night’s meeting to be different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will present this to the elders tonight,” says Nouria, pulling a folded scroll from her robes and holding it out to me.
“What is that?” I ask, almost reluctant to take it.
“Look,” she urges. “Then you’ll see.”
Taking the scroll, I hesitantly unfold it. My eyes widen as I see the charcoal sketch she has drawn. Had she not been called to the stone, Nouria could almost certainly have become one of Shurima’s greatest artists.
She has drawn a face, one that is beyond compare, a chimeric blend of the inhuman and the sublime. There is deep wisdom in the dark pools of its hooded eyes, infinite compassion, but also the capacity for lethal violence inherent in each of the god-warriors.
“It’s... incredible. How did you do this?”
“It came to me in a dream,” she says, with an impish grin that takes decades from her wind-worn face. “Just as you did with your sculpture of Setaka, remember?”
“But I was lying. Is this really the Ascended Xolaani?”
Nouria shrugs. “It might as well be.”
“What does that mean?”
She sighs, and I see the toll the years have taken on this brilliant woman. The stiffness in her fingers, the weariness deep in her bones, and—yes, now that I look harder—the growing mist in her eyes. She twists her head to look up at the scarred rock where the face of the Ascended should be.
“This will be my last sculpture,” says Nouria. “There is a sickness in my heart. My mother had it, as did hers before her. I am older now than when they died, so I will count myself fortunate if I live to see the year’s end. I do not wish to pass before seeing my greatest work completed.”
“But is it real?” I ask. “If the elders accept this and we carve it, will it be real?”
She takes back the picture, her face betraying her disappointment in me, and looks down at the gray-brown lake.“I just want to see the blue waters flow,” she says. “One last time.”
I lay on my bed, but sleep eludes me. I watch the moonlight move across my mother’s rug as the lonely hours of the night pass without the elders coming to a decision. The voices echoing from the Mason’s Hall are as strident as when they first began, but I suspect I already know what the outcome will be.
Respect for Arch-Mason Nouria holds powerful sway in our community, and her drawing is more magnificent than any yet presented to the elders.
I believe they will accept it as a true likeness, because it is miraculous.
They will accept it because they are tired of not knowing.
We all want the work to be completed in our lifetimes, to know that the face of the god who has watched over us for all these years will finally be finished.
We all want to see the waters flow once more.
For decades, we have bickered and debated, but every interpretation we have attempted to place upon Xolaani is hamstrung by our so-very-mortal sensibilities.
How can we, beings so far removed from the time of the Ascended, ever hope to know them, or imagine their likenesses? They are beings wrought by the power of the sun, raised up to godhood by powers both ancient and divine.
To imagine that any of us could set down their form is arrogant beyond words, and I feel a simmering resentment knot my gut at Nouria’s presumption. I am gripping the edge of my bed, a turbulent storm of emotions churning in my gut.
My mouth is dry with fear and unease.
For a moment, I dearly want the Arch-Mason’s drawing to be real, but how can I be sure?
I scoop up a handful of water from the ewer and splash it over my face. It tastes old and the flecks of stone dust wear at my teeth. I run my tongue over my gums and spit a gritty mouthful back onto the dusty floor.
To have spent so long working the stone only to falter at the last for the sake of convenience seems inherently wrong to me. I understand Nouria’s desire to see the work completed before she dies, but to present her vision as truth...?
What if we finish the great work on a lie? I do not like where this thought will lead, and so I stand, pulling on a woolen cloak to keep the night’s chill at bay.
Something crunches beneath my foot.
The frond-mouthed sandworm is dead beneath my sandal.
Its flattened, segmented body is faintly luminous in the moonlight, and my eyes fill with tears. It is only a tiny worm, but I feel an aching sadness at its needless death.
I chide myself for mourning the passing of a worm, when a whisper of warm breath sighs through my window, bearing a sound I have not heard since leaving Kenethet.
I cannot be certain, but it sounds like the pygmy owls that used to nest in the night-woods at the edge of the Sai Kahleek, luring insects with their clicking chirps. I climb the ladder to the roof of my home and open the bolted shutter, feeling the cool night air chill my skin, even through my cloak.
Standing on the flat roof, knowing I will surely not see a pygmy owl, I search the night sky all the same.
There is no owl of course, but lowering my gaze, I see something far stranger.
The lake at the center of our community is gone.
Its levels rise and fall with the seasons, yes, but there is always water.
Now it is gone, simply an empty, rocky basin, its exposed banks and lakebed patterned with a curious spiral, as though the water had carved the mud before vanishing.
The warm wind emanates from where the lake once lay, and I look up at the faceless god carved in the cliff.“Xolaani, show me the way,” I whisper as I drop from the roof to the sand and make my way toward the vanished lake.
It chills me to see the lakebed emptied, not because we relied upon it for our water, but because to see it vanished on the very night we may finally know the face of Xolaani feels portentous.
Kneeling at the edge, I run my fingers over the mud on its sloping banks. I expect it to be moist and pliant, but it is hard and glassy—like glazed clay after being fired in a kiln.
“What could have done this?” I whisper. The entirety of the lakebed has been vitrified to the same enameled consistency.
Once again, I hear the strange sound that drew me from my house, like chattering birds in the high branches of palm trees. It seems to be coming from the center of the lakebed, and I carefully make my way down the ridged slopes.
The bottom is flat, filled with broken shards of stone, fragments carelessly discarded by the craftsmen above. I see a stone-cut hand with two of its fingers missing, a foot with the heel broken off.
I see faces too. Some are half-sunk into the strangeness of the glassy lakebed, some split open down their length, others looking like they are pressing up from beneath the surface. Their faces are grotesque horrors, their mouths stretched in contorted grimaces. I cannot imagine any of the stonemasons of Xolan having carved such monstrous things, but understand why they would wish to be rid of them.
I give these ghastly things a wide berth.
Moonlight skitters over the rippled glass beneath my feet, sending fractured reflections all around me. Is it my imagination, or is the surface of the lakebed glowing with a soft, inner radiance? The full moon makes it hard to be sure, but then a cloud passes over its face and I am suddenly certain; there is a faint light pulsing from the ground.
It takes a moment for me to realize it is precisely in sync with the beating of my heart.
My steps carry me towards the center of the lakebed, which I now see is the source of the light and the whispering, chattering birds. The ground at the center of the spiral is cracked, split open, and ever so slightly sunken. Hairline cracks radiate outward, and when the wind changes, my stomach heaves as I catch the same rancid smell from earlier this morning.
It is the stench of an opened grave, of meat and fruit left to rot in the sun.
I take a single step back, then another.
Before I can take a third, my eyes narrow as I see a long flat shard of stone, like a mask made for a giant.
The moon emerges from behind the clouds, and the exposed stone’s surface shines like polished porcelain. The beauty of the face carved into the stone takes my breath away, blended as it is with an inhuman, but alluringly wise mien of something atavistic.
Its eyes seem to glimmer with a wisdom far beyond anything I could conceive, and I try to memorize its every contour, knowing that Xolaani herself has guided me to this revelation. I neither know nor care how this thing came to be submerged beneath our lake, that it is here and has been revealed to me on this singular night is enough for me.
I kneel beside the softly glowing stone, reaching to touch it with trembling fingertips.
Faith brought me to Xolan all those years ago, and now my faith has been rewarded.
I must bring the elders to see this miracle...
No sooner has the thought formed in my mind than the ground at the center of the lake breaks apart with a splintering crack like the clean hammer-cut of a block. Portions of the lakebed fall inwards, drawn down into the growing sinkhole.
I scramble backward as the cracks spread wider and wider.
The charnel stench billows up from below, and I feel the night grow still, the wind dropping away and the stars holding their breath.
Something emerges from the hole at the center of the lakebed, a pale, spindle-thin appendage that reminds me of the frond-mouthed worm in my home. It is swiftly followed by another and, together, they haul the pulsating, segmented body of a... a thing from below.
It is the size of a hound, its soft grub-like body tapered, wet, and glistening.
Just looking at it leaves a bilious taste in my mouth.
A multitude of black orbs ripple into existence on the surface of its head, and its skin splits apart as a circular, fang-rimmed mouth rips open. Black ichor drips from the toothed orifice. As it turns its misshapen head towards me, terror fills my veins with ice.
Another creature hauls its insect-like bulk to the surface, its form just as horrible as the first, an unnatural assembly of bladed limbs, dripping teeth, and chitinous armor. More are following, and my mind screams in terror.
But the sound they make is enough to melt the ice in my veins.
Pushing myself upright, I turn and run, no thought but escape burning in my mind. I hear them behind me, a skittering cacophony of sharp claws on the glassy lakebed. Their hissing, rasping cries echo strangely from the rock.
It is a sound not of this world.
Breathless with terror, I climb the slopes of the empty lake, scrabbling for purchase and finding none. The ground is glass, not mud, and my fingers are slick with fear-sweat. I kick off my sandals, and the bare skin of my feet gives enough grip to haul myself over the lip of the banks.
I scramble onto my knees, risking a swift glance over my shoulder.
The lakebed is filled with the hideous, chittering beasts, hundreds of them now. They swarm together—blind, idiot things, hooting and braying, hissing and spitting as they boil up from the ground. Dozens more emerge from the widening sinkhole with every passing second.
I weep as I see the porcelain face obscured by their monstrous forms, the stone flowing like wax, as though their very presence is anathema to its beauty.
With tears in my eyes and sobs wracking my chest, I turn and run for the Mason’s Hall, screaming a warning at the top of my lungs.
I cannot tell if I have been heard, but my foolish urge to look back has cost me dear.
Something sharp and hooked slashes over the back of my thigh, and I fall, going down in a graceless tangle of limbs. I roll, feeling a terrible burning heat spread from the wound as blood pours down my leg. I try to stand, but the leg is useless beneath me.
I hear voices—panicked, terrified cries as the stonemasons of Xolan see the hundreds of terrible things swarming toward them.
Someone rings a warning bell, but it will do no good.
I roll onto my back as one of the creatures rears over me. Its chest splits open down its length, revealing a fleshy red cavity of toothed tentacles and barbed fangs. It falls on me, the gaping maw of its body fastening on my stomach and devouring me in a frenzy of ripping teeth.
It is agony beyond imagining as the thing eats me alive.
But I cannot die looking at this nightmarish creature, and so with the last of my strength, I turn my head to look up at Ascended Xolaani.
“They said you watched over us...”I almost expect her to reply, but she has no face and so she says nothing.