28 Jun The Last Man of Faith
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"The Last Man of Faith"Written by
Estimated reading time — 21 minutes
It was a long time ago that I heard the tale. I was deep in the desert, with only myself and a man I had hired as a guide. We found a small oasis at the bottom of a valley and set up camp for the evening. Later that night, under a moonless sky we sat around the campfire. My guide was carving something from a piece of wood while I stared out into the desert.
“Do you know any good desert stories?” I asked. He looked at me from across the campfire for a moment with his bright blue eyes and then gazed into the fire. He nodded.
“There is one I know,” he said. “It is a very old story, and not one that many people know.”
“Well, let’s hear it then,” I said. “Preferably before the campfire goes out.” He smiled at me and began to tell his tale.
“Millennia ago, there stood in the desert the great and ancient city of Zatan’nataz, the oasis city, home to tens of thousands. It was beautiful in the sunlight, with its polished sandstone buildings shining brilliantly. It streets were full of life and color, with the merchants shouting at the pedestrians, the children running through the courtyards, and the priests and scribes going about their business. The buildings everywhere were adorned with garishly colored tapestries and murals, most including the Golden Frond, the symbol of the oasis city. Brightly painted statues stood guard at all gates and on the corners of the temples. Each of the city’s quarters held a massive fountain spraying water high into the air. At the center of all of the roads was the Tower of the Moon, rising into the sky above the city. At its base stood the Great Crypt, the sanctuary of the priesthood and the heart of Zatan’nataz. A high and impenetrable wall surrounded it all in a near perfect circle. But things were far from perfect in that ancient city.
Just before sunrise on the night of every new moon, a young hunter named Aser climbed onto his roof to view the monthly spectacle. As the first light of dawn came over the horizon, all activity in the city ceased. The streets were empty, the people in their homes stayed silent. And then came the sound of slaying from the Great Crypt. It was a faint sound, but unmistakable. Every citizen of Zatan’nataz claimed that they could hear it when it happened. And then the locked doors of the Great Crypt opened and four high priests carried out a large stone sarcophagus emblazoned with the Golden Frond and the Black Sun, the sign of the goddess. While all others hid in their homes for the duration of the ceremony, peeking out of their windows if they were brave, Aser crouched on his rooftop and watched them as they went from the center of the city to the southern gate.
For five years the ceremony had been carried out. An old, old legend had stated that the city was under the protection of a goddess. One day, it said, a demon would come to destroy the city. On that day, the goddess would come, banish the demon and usher in a golden age for Zatan’nataz. But the demon had come and the goddess had not. The high priests slew the demon using ancient and forbidden magic, but its heart refused to die. They ripped the organ from its body, but a new body began to slowly grow around the heart. They could not destroy it, nor could they dispose of it, so they placed it in the deepest shrine of the Great Crypt and sealed the doors. Then they returned, every month, when the demon was nearly regenerated, and cut its heart out once again. Then they placed the husk in the sarcophagus and carried it to the Pit of Zakas, which was said to be the entrance to the underworld, and threw the lifeless body into it, coffin and all. And thus the high priests claimed they protected the city until the goddess came to destroy the demon once and for all.
The people of Zatan’nataz claimed that this was their golden age. They claimed that the demon was defeated. Aser called that heresy. To all that would listen, he made his case. Aser was a man of faith that believed the prophecy must be followed precisely. Until the goddess destroyed the demon, he said, the golden age would not truly come. And for the goddess to appear, the demon must be let loose upon the world. His friends laughed at first. They tried to persuade him otherwise. Failing at that, they turned their backs on him at last. Aser called them blind. He said that their golden age was a farce. He had watched the city for many years and he had seen the rot beginning to set in over it.
It began with the high priests. Beneath the banner of the Black Sun, they claimed that they were above all others in the oasis city. They began to amass wealth, servants, and power beyond compare. He had heard rumors of them stealing from the city’s vaults and claiming it for the temple. He had seen them take young women from their families to fulfill their own desires. And he had seen any who stood against them disappear as if they had never existed. The city had fallen into ruin with its funds depleted. Violence, crime and corruption had taken hold. But the people claimed that the golden age was upon them because they did not want to believe what was directly in front of them.
At noon on the days of slaying, the doors of the Great Crypt stood open and the priests flaunted their power. For on display on the great altar for one hour was the heart that they had ripped out of the demon’s chest. It beat slowly as the bravest citizens viewed it. And at the end of the hour, the veins and arteries began to sprout once again and the people of the city were banished from the Crypt until the next day of slaying. Aser viewed it every time. He was drawn to it. At times he thought he could almost hear a voice in the air, pleading with him to free it from its torment. And one day, as the voice was clearer than it had ever been, Aser finally decided to take action. He would unleash the demon.
For one month he planned how he would do it. He could not merely stop the slaying. The doors of the Great Crypt had powerful seals upon them. And even if he could gain entry, how long would it be before the demon awoke? No, his course of action had to be more precise. He must rejoin the body and heart. He knew the course of the priests transporting the husk to the Pit of Zakas. Along the way there was a large boulder that had been there since before the first stone of Zatan’nataz was laid. It was there that he must wait. He readied his bow, which he had practiced with since he was a small child. His aim was near perfect. He laid out his arrows and performed certain rituals and blessings over them, saying that what blood they spilled would be for the greater good.
And so the next day of slaying came. Aser had hidden behind the great boulder a day before and camped there. He had no fear of being discovered, for none but the holy men with their load traveled toward the Pit of Zakas. Dawn came and the city went silent. And despite being a half-mile from the city gates, Aser heard the sound of slaying. Over the years he had come to know the exact timing and pace of the high priests travelling with the great stone sarcophagus. So he waited, knowing exactly when they would cross in front of the boulder. And exactly when he expected, he heard footfalls on the other side of his refuge. He circled the stone quietly, so that he came around to the road behind them. As he moved onto the road he saw them walking slowly ahead of him, with their backs turned. He drew his bow and aimed for the priest to the front and right, the farthest away from him. His years of training had served him well, for the arrow found its target in the back of the priest’s head. The other three staggered as one edge of the sarcophagus was no longer held aloft. Aser drew his next shot and fired at the priest on the back right. The arrow struck him in the back and he fell. With that, the sarcophagus tumbled to the right, its side slamming into the dirt path. Its heavy stone lid loosened and fell to the earth. Its contents struck the side with a dull thud.
By now the remaining priests had turned and seen him. They drew their ceremonial blades and charged. Before the nearest could reach him, Aser had buried an arrow in his throat. As the last ran at him, Aser drew and fired his fourth arrow. And then something happened that did not happen often. He missed. With the priest almost upon him, Aser panicked and quickly drew another arrow. He rushed the shot and fired wildly, missing the priest again. With that, the man was upon him, swinging the razor sharp blade toward his head. Aser raised his bow to block the strike. The blade cut effortlessly through the thick wood, but missed its mark and buried itself in Aser’s shoulder. He screamed in pain and watched as his blood began to soak the sand beneath him. For a moment he waited, expecting the strike that would cut his throat. But it did not come. He raised his head and saw that the priest was exhausted. It had been years since he had had to act so swiftly. Aser took his chance and knocked the sword from the man’s grasp. Acting on instinct, he pulled the man to the ground and leapt on top of him, his hands going to his throat. For what seemed like an eternity he choked him, until the man finally stopped moving.
Aser rose to his feet panicked and gasping for breath. His killing of the others was sanctified by the blessed arrows. This was cold blooded murder. His soul was now forfeit. After a minute of panic, he calmed himself by remembering his goal. Surely if he heralded in the true golden age he would be redeemed. He approached the fallen sarcophagus, its lid lying silently on the ground beside it. He prepared himself to gaze upon an abomination and looked inside the stone coffin. What was inside was not what he had expected. What was inside terrified him more than anything else on earth ever could. After many minutes of staring, he carefully gathered up the contents in a large burlap sack, painfully hefted it over his good shoulder, and ran back toward Zatan’nataz.
For hours he hid in a darkened alley with his prize. It seemed like an eternity. Finally he saw the sun rise directly above him and he knew it was time. The priests would not be suspicious at first, for Aser was always present at the displaying of the heart. His plan to retrieve the heart had been subtle and complex, but for all those hours of waiting, rage had festered inside his heart. He would not draw it out one second more than was necessary. It was then that he heard a loud crack and knew that the doors of the Great Crypt had been unsealed.
He threw his burden over his right shoulder once more and marched toward the Crypt. As he reached the doors he saw that a priest was slowly pulling each of the doors open. One of them smiled as he saw Aser, for they had seen him every new moon for years. His smile faded as he saw the bag draped over his shoulder. As Aser reached the doors, he shoved the left door as hard as he could. The door struck the priest and he fell onto his back clutching his face. When the priest on the right protested, Aser swung around, one end of the heavy sack on his shoulder striking the man in the face and sending him to the ground as well.
The ceiling of the Crypt towered high above him, the sunlight filtering in through a hundred small windows. He strode through the towering statues surrounding him toward the great altar in the center of the room. Two priests were present, one on each side of the altar. Upon hearing the noise at the entrance they had drawn their blades. Aser let the bag he carried fall to the floor with the sickening noise of dead flesh. The priests charged at him, but Aser was ready this time. He knew their aim would be poor, and that they had no strength to their blows. He grabbed the wrist of the first to reach him and wrenched it until the blade dropped from his grasp. He placed a hand on the man’s chest and shoved him into the second priest. They fell to the floor screaming. Aser saw red and knew that the second man’s blade must have cut one or both of them. He didn’t care.
Aser stepped around the two men on the floor and made his way to the great altar in the center of the room. The light from the windows above made the golden altar shine brilliantly, but what Aser wanted was the lump of dull flesh sitting on top of it. A shudder ran through him as he picked the heart up off of the altar. The beating was slow and faint, but there nonetheless. Aser closed his eyes and began to silently mouth a prayer. Before he could finish it, a hand roughly grabbed his wounded shoulder from behind. His arm exploded in pain as he was spun around. Opening his eyes, he saw a large man clad in leather armor towering above him. The dull leather was emblazoned with the symbol of the Black Sun. Aser had little time to react as a heavy fist struck him in the face and everything faded to black.
Aser awoke in a room the likes of which he had never seen before. He had been seated in a heavy wooden chair. He did not seem to be bound in any way. In front of him stood a tall central stand containing a dimly burning torch. The light cut through the darkness around him, casting strange shadows on the walls. This was unsettling as Aser could see nothing between the torch and walls that could be casting the shadows. The walls were covered in paintings that may have looked normal in the light, but underneath the dim light and shadows there was not one of them that did not look demonic. Graceful figures became twisted and scarred. Beneath him on the floor was a carpet made from the hides of animals he did not recognize.
Several seconds after he awoke, he heard a door open behind him. Soft footsteps approached his back and he heard a low voice.
“I presumed that my personal study might give us a bit more privacy than the cells in the dungeon,” the voice said. A tall man clad in the same branded armor walked to the front of him. He turned and stood directly between Aser and the torch, his figure silhouetted against the dim light at his back. Aser could make out nothing about his face except for a pair of flashing blue eyes that stared back at him.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the strange man. “I am Sukaz, head of the Guardians of the Priesthood. You won’t have heard of us, of course. We take great care to make sure of that. We find it makes our jobs easier.” As Aser’s head fully cleared, the rage returned, stronger than before.
“What have you done?” Aser said in a low growl.
“I have done nothing,” said Sukaz. “You, on the other hand, have committed several acts of murder, put the people of the city into a panic and almost ruined many years of hard work.”
“You know what I mean,” said Aser. “What was that?!” The rage was evident in his voice. He saw a flash of white as Sukaz grinned at him.
“Ah,” said Sukaz. “You mean what was in the sarcophagus. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You knew the moment you saw it, whether you want to believe it or not.” Aser thought back to hours before, when he gazed into the great stone coffin. There was a corpse inside, but it was no demon. It was the body of a woman. She was tall, beautiful and regal. He had seen the skin of the body shine faintly, bathing the inside of the sarcophagus with light. Aser said his next words slowly and deliberately, rage permeating every syllable.
“You have slaughtered a god.”
“Yes, repeatedly,” said Sukaz. Aser leapt from the chair he was seated in, his hands going for Sukaz’s throat. As soon as he had risen, the man’s fist crashed directly into his jaw. He fell back onto the chair painfully, tasting blood and feeling that two teeth were missing from the right side of his jaw. “Do not think that you can kill me as easily as a few pampered high priests, boy. Luck has been on your side thus far. It will not be again.” Aser drew himself back up in the chair, but remained seated. He glared back at the man in front of him, tears beginning to well up in his eyes.
“How in the name of all that is holy can you do such a thing?” asked Aser, his voice nearly breaking.
“To be fair,” said Sukaz with a maddening tone of superiority, “I have never killed her myself. You can credit your illustrious priesthood with that. As for why, they do it because of the one thing that drives all men.”
“And that is?”
“Fear,” said Sukaz. “Five years ago, the high priests began to descend into a state of arrogance and decadence. They began to amass power, created the Guardians, and robbed the city blind. And then she appeared; the very goddess these priests claimed to work on behalf of. And on that day, those men that once thought themselves righteous feared judgment more than any.” Sukaz laughed softly. “I am not sure who struck the blow, but before she could say one word to them, a priest drew his blade and impaled her through the heart. Then they saw the blood withdraw and the wound begin to heal. They had been afraid of judgment for their pride. They were now petrified of judgment for the murder of a deity. And so the cycle began.”
“Five years,” said Aser. “Five years! How many times has it been?? How many corpses have been thrown into the pit?! Why do they let this continue?!” He was sure that someone outside would hear his screams, but Sukaz just stood there and let him continue. When he finally stopped, the man laughed.
“Your people are cowards,” said Sukaz. “They cannot face what they see in front of them. Their city could be burning around them and they would not notice.”
“The city is burning!” screamed Aser. “And you know it! How do you let this happen day in and day out?”
“Because the world may be better off with it gone,” said Sukaz. “The oasis city is dead and rotting. It must be cut off like a gangrenous limb.” The man’s tone changed as he said those words. His voice echoed from the walls around them. Aser’s rage began to dim. Fear began to replace it.
“Who are you?” Aser asked, his voice lowered to a whisper. Sukaz crossed his arms and looked up toward the ceiling, as if trying to find the correct words to say. After a few seconds, he circled the torch in the center of the room, until he came to a stop on the side opposite Aser. Turning towards Aser, he could see Sukaz’s face at last. It seemed completely normal, with short dark hair and a thin pointed beard. Then Aser saw the shadow being cast behind him. Though Sukaz was only slightly taller than Aser, the shadow loomed high above them both. The shadow’s head appeared to have several horns jutting off of it at odd angles. Massive wings stretched to its sides, covering the entire wall with darkness. Sukaz saw Aser’s eyes go wide. He grinned and circled back around to the front of the torch.
“I am someone that is very much above the people of this city,” said Sukaz.
“You are the demon,” said Aser. “The demon of legend.” Sukaz chuckled, the sound ringing off the walls.
“Demon? No,” said Sukaz, shaking his head. “I prefer to see myself as more of an angel; one with a very specific purpose.”
“Destruction,” said Aser.
“Change,” said Sukaz. “Nothing lasts forever in this world. To try to do so is folly.” He moved closer to Aser, who cowered in his seat. “All men die, all cities fall to ruin, and all empires crumble. It is the natural order of things. Your city, your goddess, and your people try to work against nature itself.”
“It wasn’t all the priests, was it?” asked Aser, finding some small semblance of courage.
“That depends,” said Sukaz, the tone of superiority coming back into his voice. “I may have started their decline into corruption, I may have caused them to doubt their beliefs, and I may have implanted their fear of their goddess, but I did not draw that blade and I have not touched her.”
“You won’t get away with this,” said Aser, his voice finally confident once again. “I won’t let you do this. The goddess will live again!” Sukaz tilted his head to one side and looked silently at Aser, a questioning look in his eyes.
“Very well,” said Sukaz. “You are free to go.” Aser’s jaw dropped and a dumbfounded look came onto his face.
“Really?” said Aser. “You are not going to imprison me? Kill me?”
“Would you like me to?” asked Sukaz. Aser stared back silently. “No, my friend,” said Sukaz. “It is not my place to kill you. My purpose is to bring ruin. Perhaps yours is to bring ruin to me. Who am I to interfere with the machinations of fate? Go.” Still staring at the man in front of him, Aser slowly got up from the chair. With a great deal of fear he turned his back on the man and started toward the door behind him.
“However,” said Sukaz. “You may not want to go through with this.” Aser stopped in his tracks two steps from the door. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He did not want to listen to what the demon had to say, but something made him turn around.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Aser. Sukaz had moved back around to the other side of the torch in the center of the room. The massive shadow was visible once again on the far wall. Steeling himself, Aser walked to the torch, glaring at Sukaz from directly across.
“I just mean that should you follow this course of action, the results may be much worse than you anticipate. What may seem like the right thing to do may be anything but.”
“Do not try to fool me,” said Aser. “You cannot see the future.”
“Perhaps not,” said Sukaz. “But I have watched this world for longer than you can imagine and I have become quite adept at guessing the outcome of things. Would you like to see what the future has in store?” For the first time since he began his quest, doubt began to slip into Aser’s mind. He tried to remind himself that that was exactly what the demon was trying to do, but that slight twinge of doubt began to grow. Aser found himself unable to resist.
“Alright, demon,” said Aser. “What can you tell me of my quest?” Sukaz grinned more broadly than ever as the words left Aser’s lips.
“I prefer to show you,” said Sukaz. The man waved a hand over the torch in the center of the room and it was extinguished. Fear gripped Aser as the darkness enveloped him. Then, from above him, a light appeared. He looked up and saw that it was the moon, high overhead. Looking back to the floor, he saw a forest laid out before him. He heard Sukaz clearing his throat behind him and spun around. Aser found himself on the top of a high ridge, looking down on Zatan’nataz from miles away. Sukaz stood on the very precipice.
“What will happen when the goddess lives again?” asked Sukaz. “Is it not possible that her wrath will be great?” With that, a brilliant light appeared in the sky above the city. A massive glowing orb hung ominously over Zatan’nataz. “Is it not possible that the city will pay the price?” The orb descended in a split second, striking the center of the city. A flash of light struck Aser’s eyes and he had to cover them. Moments later, he felt a shockwave wash over him. Uncovering his eyes, he saw that a dozen more of the orbs had appeared above the city and were beginning to descend. Forcing himself to look into the light, he saw blast after blast tear the city apart. Houses were thrown high into the air. The great statues were blown to dust. He saw the Tower of the Moon shatter and fall.
“But why stop there?” asked Sukaz. “Will her wrath not be great enough to punish the world of men as a whole?” The entire sky was suddenly alight with the massive orbs. They began to move outward, travelling towards the far eastern cities and the coastal cities of the north. “Would you watch the world burn just for your hope?” The great orb nearest to them in the sky began to descend directly towards Aser. In seconds, the light had engulfed him and he could see nothing. Aser steeled himself, closed his eyes and tried to ignore the vision before him.
“That will never happen,” said Aser. “Our goddess is merciful and just. She would never punish those that have not wronged her.” His voice was confident, but in his mind the seed of doubt began to grow larger. After a moment, Sukaz spoke again through the light.
“Perhaps,” he said. “So let us assume you are right and that your goddess is not the wrathful sort. Let us assume that your beloved golden age does indeed come after my demise.” The light around Aser dimmed and began to flicker. He slowly opened his eyes and looked around him. He was in the battered husk of a city. Tall wooden houses burned around him. The air was heavy with smoke. Ash lined the streets. Sukaz still stood in front of him on the broken street.
“Where are we now?” asked Aser. Sukaz shrugged.
“One of the eastern cities,” he said. “Sted or Lasaria or Holm or one of the other ones I cannot remember.” Sukaz bent down and grabbed a handful of ash. As he spoke, he let it sift through his fingers and let it drift away in the searing wind. “Your golden age comes, but your city’s pride does not disappear. It only grows.” Sukaz turned and began to walk up the road, stepping over burning debris. Aser hurried after him. He felt his feet sink into the hot ash. He could not help but wonder where all of the people were. Perhaps the vision was not complete.
“They begin to see themselves as superior to those around them,” said Sukaz. “They are ruled over by a living deity and they feel they have the divine right to rule over these other pathetic cities. The armies of Zatan’nataz march on them all and burn them to the ground.” The two of them finally came to a great courtyard. Aser moved ahead of Sukaz and saw that the paved area had been ripped apart and that great pits had been dug into the earth. Moving towards one, he saw that it was not a pit, but a mass grave. A hundred charred skeletons filled the pit to its very brim. He saw movement and the center of the courtyard and his attention was torn away from the bodies. The smoke cleared and he could see a banner flying proudly. It was bloodied and torn, but the symbol of the Black Sun could still be seen emblazoned on it.
“What once inspired faith will now only instill fear,” said Sukaz. Aser felt rage begin to boil up inside him, but he could not tell what it was directed at. Was it at the men of this future? Sukaz? Himself?
“No!” screamed Aser. “The people of Zatan’nataz would never do this! I have lived there my entire life and I have never once doubted that they are good people.”
“You still believe that after knowing what has transpired there for five years?” asked Sukaz. “Your naivety is amusing if nothing else, I must say.”
“Even if our leaders have fallen to corruption, the people will not,” said Aser. Sukaz smirked and shook his head at Aser.
“So once again, let us assume you are right,” said Sukaz. “Your precious people are faultless and they spend their golden age doing wholesome, peaceful things.” Aser struggled to keep a calm façade in response to Sukaz’s mocking tone. “Do you trust the people of the surrounding cities just as much?” As he spoke the words, the city around them blurred and changed. The sound of the flames died down and was replaced with another sound: metal striking metal.
“The men of the surrounding cities see your great wealth and power,” said Sukaz. “And as always happens, they are filled with envy and fear. They will try to crush you.”
As the scene around him finally stopped shifting, Aser found him and Sukaz standing in the market quarter of Zatan’nataz, beneath one of the great fountains. The waters ran red. Around them, soldiers fought madly. The guards of Zatan’nataz were outnumbered and outmatched, but they struggled on, more falling each second. The soldiers attacking them had many different sigils on their armor.
“They will succeed,” said Sukaz. He motioned for Aser to look behind him. Aser did so and saw the body of the goddess once again. Her heart was removed and the body had been decapitated. Aser fell to his knees seeing the streets of the oasis city full of death. He closed his eyes and lowered his face into his hands. The noise around him fell silent. He looked up and found himself in Sukaz’s study once again, the torch shining dimly from its stand. Aser felt his head spinning. Sukaz stood over him, armed crossed, awaiting a response. Aser met his gaze, glaring back into the bright blue eyes. He rose to his feet and took a deep breath.
“So,” said Sukaz. “What is your course of action now?” It was almost a minute before Aser replied.
“I believe in the goddess,” said Aser. “I believe in the city of Zatan’nataz. And I believe in all people. I will see your downfall, demon, no matter the cost.” There was no trace of uncertainty in his voice. There was not even any rage. There was only a conviction that brought a look of shock to Sukaz’s face. Aser shoved Sukaz away from him and went for the door.
“Stop,” said Sukaz. Aser sighed and waited, keeping his back to Sukaz.
“Going to kill me now?” asked Aser. He heard Sukaz’s footsteps approach his back.
“No,” said Sukaz. “I’m not going to be that kind.”
“Then what do you want?” asked Aser. He felt Sukaz’s breath on the back of his neck.
“You have seen what could happen,” whispered Sukaz. “But now you must know what will happen.” Aser remained silent. “I gave you a chance. A chance to stop your fool’s crusade and live out your days in peace. The same way I gave your priests a chance to save themselves and repent. But they failed to take it, and now so have you.”
“I will not listen to more of your lies, demon.”
“Then listen to the truth!” said Sukaz, his voice raising. “You will go and tell the people of me and your high priests. And do you know what they will do? They will call you mad…and heretic. And they will take you and lock you away in the Tower of the Moon in a tiny cell with one tiny window. And every new moon you will look out that window and wonder if it is finally the day that the high priests break the cycle and release your precious goddess. And that day will never come.” Aser closed his eyes and focused his thoughts inward, ignoring Sukaz, whose voice rose with every word. “You will watch your city travel the road to destruction. You will live out your life in that cell waiting for the day to come! And on your deathbed, you will finally know that that day will never come!” Sukaz grabbed Aser by the shoulder and spun him around, screaming directly into his face. “Where will your faith be then?!” Sukaz finally fell silent. Aser reached up and removed his hand from his shoulder. He looked back into the demon’s eyes and smiled.
“The same place it has always been,” said Aser. Sukaz glared back and returned the smile.
“You think you will be rewarded in death as a martyr,” said Sukaz. “But you do not know the truth. She is not a goddess. She is Zatan’nataz, the very soul of the oasis city. With every day of slaying, the city decays, brick by brick. And when enough bodies have been cast into the pit, your precious city will collapse under the weight of its own pride. You’ll have no deity to put faith in.” Aser remained silent for a moment. When he spoke again, Sukaz heard something change. It was subtle, almost imperceptible, but it was there.
“I have learned something here today, Sukaz,” said Aser. “I thank you. I really do. Because if Zatan’nataz is only a city, then there is only one thing left to place my faith in. I believe in the people. And if this city does fall one day, the people will survive it, and you will know that you have failed. Where will your pride be then?” Sukaz said nothing as Aser turned and left the room at last. Sukaz thought quietly for a moment and then smirked.
“Good luck, man of faith,” he said. “You will need it.” The torch went out and the room descended back into darkness.”
My guide stopped talking and began carving once again. I waited a minute for him to resume before speaking.
“Well?” I asked. “What happened then?” He looked up at me and smiled.
“There are no records that still remain from that ancient city,” he said. I sighed and got up from the campfire. I grabbed a torch and stuck it into the fire. After lighting it, I walked toward the spring a short walk away from our camp. I kept talking as I walked away.
“So do you think the place even existed?” I asked.
“There are certain relics that have been found that supposedly come from the oasis city.” I reached the spring, planted the torch into the earth beside me, and drank a handful of water.
“And there are some that say that deep, deep in the desert on cold and moonless nights, a strange man appears,” said my guide. I was about to turn back to the campfire when I saw something out of place beneath the water.
“A strange man with flashing blue eyes.” I pulled the torch out of the earth and raised it higher.
“And they say that if you ask politely, he will tell you the tale.” A large slab of stone lay at the bottom of the spring.
“The tale of the last man of faith in the great, ancient, and forgotten city of Zatan’nataz.” On that stone slab beneath the clear waters I could make out two symbols: a shining golden frond and a large black sun. I turned back towards the campfire to call my guide over to see, but when I looked back I found that I was alone beneath that moonless night sky.