“I don’t think we should go in.” Din’s feet scrabbled for purchase on the sandy embankment. He dropped to his belly and pulled the scrubby brush aside, squinting at the ruins. The cool, white light of the moon kissed the edges of the ancient plaster buildings. The rest of the city was cloaked in darkness. Sunken roofs, like gaping mouths, waited to swallow the night.
“Do you think this is it?” The priestess, Mare, crouched low against the bank. Her bare toes clung to the exposed roots as she flattened herself beside Din.
“Do I dare hope not?” Din’s voice was like a gnat in the dark; Mare swatted at him. She heaved herself onto the grassy ledge and ran her thumbs under the straps of her travel bag. Mare held out her hand. Din sucked in through his teeth with a dry hiss, but he took it. He always would.
“They are cursed.” Din stared at the dirty white walls with dread in his belly. “The Rasha was right about that.”
“That’s why we are here. I want to see the temple.”
“I want to see the sunrise.”
“The sun will rise.” Mare flew down the hill. Her bag swung out behind her like a broken wing. Din dragged himself after her. The ruins repulsed him more with every step. She danced between the unguarded watchtowers. Fear clutched at Din’s throat when she crossed the threshold. He choked on it.
The walls before him were like slabs of white flesh, dimpled and pocked with time. Wind sucked sand past his feet as the city inhaled the night air. Mare’s exhilarated face shone at him from the darkness beyond. Her chest heaved and the moonlight glistened on her skin. Din had no choice, now. This was her purpose. It was his duty to follow.
“Come.” Mare darted into the shadows; Din hastened after. They swallowed her whole. It was as if the darkness was a physical thing, catching in his throat. His lungs itched. Mare kicked up inky clouds of dust as she ran. She disappeared around a corner.
“Wait!” The word rasped in his chest. The sound of his coughing echoed off the fleshy walls. Deadened. Din struggled to match her pace. When he rounded the corner, she was gone.
Instead, a squat, meaty building confronted him. Its doors fell inwards, yawning. Shadows swirled like smoke at the base of the temple, sucked into the maw. Everything was darker there. White walls were grey. Greasy black ash climbed up Din’s legs like burned flesh.
That was the smell of this place. Black flames licked at the white plaster, leaving streaks of char behind them. Mare would be inside. Din fought his way up the stairs, into the pitch. His lungs burned and his muscles were on fire. The temple was voracious, sucking and heaving everything into its depths. But it did not want Din.
The smell was stronger inside. Strange, lumpen shapes scattered across the floor, blackened things. Mare’s face blazed in the darkness. She was a statue upon the dais, her travel bag abandoned at her feet. Her hands cupped the Rasha’s gift and held it high above her head.
“It is time.” Mare’s body pulsed with bloody light. She looked every bit the Rasha’s priestess. The Cleansing Stone reflected her radiance. Din knelt before the dais. The temple echoed with Mare’s voice as she intoned the Rasha’s ancient spell. The Stone burned above her, a great red eye in the darkness. Black shadow-flames licked at Mare’s legs. They caressed her flesh, embracing her.
The acrid air inside the temple stirred. On the floor, the blackened things moved. Slowly, they dragged themselves toward the dais. Toward Mare. The temple heaved, spitting into the deserted streets. Shadows sucked past Din. They wailed and clawed at him. He dug his fingers into the stone and prayed.
Flames twisted and swirled around the priestess. She released the Cleansing Stone and it rose above her. Wings of fire burst from Mare’s back and she, too, was forced to kneel. She held out her burning hands to him. Din fought against the pull of the ruins. The temple sucked at him like a whirlwind. She couldn’t complete the spell without him. Even the cursed city knew that.
Din let go of the stone.
Mare caught him; She always would.
“Behold, the rising sun!”
Din screamed as the flames engulfed his body.
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