Cender was blessed of Old Aggie. His seven daughters and twenty-one granddaughters were proof of that. But now, standing before the statue of the goddess, he couldn’t help but tremble inwardly. He was, after all, going to his death.
Cender pushed a long lock of thin, gray hair back on his head, washing his genitals in the pool of water at the statue’s base, and turned, kissing his fingers and pressing them to the statue’s lips, begging forgiveness for sins against his family and protection for the road ahead, knowing that only one of those prayers would be answered. The stone had fallen to him, after all.
Cender bowed his head in a final supplication and stepped out of the water, turning and walking into the white sands that surrounded the short, squat building. He wrapped a length of cloth about his head and took out the round, smooth pebble that had decided his fate. He cast it into the air, letting it fall to the earth, then kneeling to look at it carefully, squinting at the arrow carved into it. He picked it up again, shouldering the supply of water that would not last him more than a week, and walked into the desert, following it.
When he came upon the ruins of the first homes—those oldest ones which were now abandoned—he rested. He should have known better, especially since the ghosts of the dead are always close in the desert, but he didn’t care. He was tired, his feet were blistered, and night had been upon him for hours. And he felt lonely. Cender had slept beside his wife for thirty-eight years, and now, he felt naked and cold without her warmth. He closed his eyes, trying not to listen to the voices in his head, when he heard a different one entirely.
“You are old, Cender of Dnoma. Why do you walk this desert?”
His eyes opened quickly, turning and looking, seeing a butterfly resting on the edge of the wall. He immediately leaned up, then lowered himself, his forehead touching the ground. “Lord… You honor me.”
The voice did not continue to speak. Cender cursed inwardly when he realized that he had not answered the question.
“I am the new seeker, my lord. The lot fell to me, and being of a great many daughters, I was sent in spite of my age.”
The voice was again silent, but when Cender raised his head, he saw that the butterfly had taken flight, wafting through the air like a leaf. He grabbed his pouch of water, his bag, and hurried, following it, deeper into the desert, deeper into the cold night.
The butterfly seemed to flick away into nothing when he crested the hill, but Cender didn’t notice. He was, instead, silent. Very, very silent.
Before him stretched a ruin unlike any he had seen before, and Cender had been a traveler in his youth, tasted the dead waters to the north, seen the walls to the south. But this…
It stretched for ages. Maybe miles. Maybe further. It was made of metal, somehow, and stone, and parts of it hurt to look at, and—with a prayer of thanks and supplication on his lips—Cender dropped to the ground and closed his eyes. He had found it. Hundreds of seekers lost to the desert, and he had found it.
Starel’s Tomb. The Home Ceitu. The City of the Gods.
“By your will, oh great ones, I have been guided here. Truly, I am blessed of Aggie. I am blessed of Drakgin. I am blessed of Starel. Thank you!”
And had Cender taken his blessing, taken it and run back home, he would have lived out the rest of his days as a saint and priest.
But he did not.
Cender stepped over the sharp stones, wincing slightly as he did so. His feet were aged by the desert and tougher than leather, but these stones were painfully sharp. He finally reached the wall, his hands grabbing and scrabbling for purchase, slowly pulling himself up and on top of the outlying structure. Inside was cooler already, by the will of the gods, and as Cender dropped into the cracked courtyard, he felt a sense of ease was over him.
The gods had allowed him entry. Surely, he was blessed of them, to the point of being the next prophet perhaps. This was, after all, no vision. This was real.
He walked toward the large, opened doors and stepped into them, smiling, not even noticing the deep cuts in the floor or the lingering smell of sulfur.
He walked into the building, feeling his spirit lift as he gazed up at the seemingly endless ceilings, the deep corridors off either side of it, the endlessly twisting room. He walked down it, choosing a door at random and marking the entrance with his stone, then entering it. He explored, finding the works of the gods littered and skewed about the room, laying broken and destroyed. He sighed, turning to leave as he realized the true treasures would be far deeper in the city. As he turned to leave it, he bent to pick up his rock, and found it missing. His eyes narrowed at the floor, looking for it, realizing that he’d foolishly discarded his mark of office and purpose… And then he heard it.
It was a roar, but unlike any he had ever heard. A sound worse than those the demons made when they were butchered. And it was quite close, he feared. So, he did what every coward who knows he is going to die does. He ran.
Cender’s legs were old and tired, but the desert makes strong folk, and he could run. The doors were gone, gone to wherever the ancients send such things as displease them, and Cender instead ran for a different path, hoping that somehow he would be given exit, that the gods would forgive him, even though he knew that they would not. He hurried and ran, deeper and deeper, hearing the walls turning and crashing behind him, breaking into nothing as he heard the thing's voice calling to him.
“Cender…” it murmured, in a voice that somehow echoed and surrounded him.
Starel’s Tomb was huge, infinitely long, and full of twists and turns. He was given short moments of joy when he thought he'd escaped, followed by deep moments of fear and sorrow as he realized he did not. Who knows how long Cender fled the beast? Only that it was not long enough in his mind.
He ran and ran and finally… fell, turning and looking at the beast, its great maw opening and splitting into four parts, its terrible teeth easily pushing into his skin and through it. He screamed loudly as Sikayt And Cender screamed and screamed, but the gods wouldn’t hear him. And there he died, learning too late that the blessing of one god is the curse of another.
The old man’s yellow, toothy grin looked also as terrifying as the story had sounded, and the children quickly fled while the old man laughed loudly, slapping his knees and coughing as his laughing fit caught up to him. He turned to leave, until a small voice caught him.
“But what was it Cender found?” it asked.
The storyteller turned, looking at the small, deeply tanned boy, no older than twelve. “What did he find?” the man asked. “Why… he found just what he thought he found. The Home Ceitu. The City of the Gods. Starel’s Tomb.”
The little boy shifted on his feet some, licking his cracked lips. “So… was he blessed?” he asked.
The old man’s smile stretched across his face again. “Of course not,” he said, laughing. “He was cursed. There are some secrets no one should have to discover.”
“But,” the little boy continued, “He found the Home Ceitu. Isn’t that a blessing?”
The old man’s eyes narrowed at the boy as he realized that the child would not be swayed. “What is your name, boy?” he asked.
The boy narrowed his eyes just for a moment. “Never tell your name to one who hides his,” he said.
The ancient man laughed loudly. “Wise boy… Follower of York, are we?” he asked, then smiled and nodded at his own question. “I am called Benadam,” he said.
The boy nodded. “My friends call me Rone.”
“Well met, Rone. Come. Let me tell you a tale of York… Have you ever heard the story of the ape god Abirt and the waters of life?” he asked, turning about and walking, the boy following him quickly and hanging onto every word.