Out in the barren fields, away from the City of Veils, strange nomadic people can be seen – their skin is as dark as oakwood, and yet their eyes are clear blue, as if deep waters reflecting the light of dawn.
Their hair is black as unburnt charcoal and they carry the same fire in their heart, for they are quick to friendship just as to ire. Iskalnari they are known in their own weird tongue.
Their flesh is carved by sharp ceramid knives, so that thing pale words are etched all across their skin, forming phrases and lines in their strange language. As one of them dies, another carries a phrase upon their body, so that the song they display is never lost.
Their elderly are not mourned in a bed, but are carried out in the open until their skin is paper and their eyes are solid silver from trying to catch the Sun. At which point the now-leathery skin is cut and cured, to be made into new pages for their books of flesh.
They keep to themselves, and there is little love lost between them and the priests of the Three, for the Iskalnari worship nothing else but the unerring passage of the Sun, and its place at the center of the cosmic orrery.
To those who bring gifts and patience in their ears they speak of friendship, yet their words are grave and carry with them an undercurrent of fear: for they tell of the death of the Sun, and the coming of the One Night. Then the only light will be that of torches and embers, and always any able man must carry a torch with him, be it in his hand or his heart.
For the Dream Valley – such is their name for the blasted Borderlands – is turning, and turning ever closer to the final doom. Then the Seven Sisters will rise again, the gates of the orrery will be torn asunder, and all that grows will be strangled by the moon vines and the moon steel.
The wise among scholars and rulers know that such tales mean nothing; just panicked whispers to entertain those fool enough to lend ear to the murmurs of a barbaric people.
And yet I did lend them ear and I truly believe they might hold some of the keys to the questions that have crossed my mind since I have memory. I told them not my name, nor my history. I disguised my face with shrouds, used a herb potion to darken my eyes, foundation to cover my skin. They know not, I believe, that I was a woman from the North, nor about my purpose. And there are no Magicians among them, or at least I sensed none. Nobody asked about the Sigil that holds me in its grip, nor did I share any detail about it.
They did not show me their books of flesh, nor did they share with me more than vague warnings and the tea they make out of gravel-leaves, yet between many drawings etched on the sand I discerned the same patterns of the night sky as I had envisioned back in the libraries of Marservero.
The cosmic orrery has indeed been broken with the Capsizing. It pivots out of place, each turning is wrong and mills the heaven into finer and finer powder.
What other mysteries the Iskalnari might hold, they had decided not to share with me. They liked my gifts well enough, but I refuse to reveal my history, nor the signs on my hands. They have little love for those who possess the Art, and I believe they’d have little need or desire for my friendship if they knew of my true identity.
Therefore, I decided to move my focus towards the watch itself. From the mangled tower that peers heedlessly into the red horizon I can see no answers, not yet. Yet the stone sings. It sings of the crumbling day when they were first erected as a final barrier, not to keep thing out but to keep them in. And how their purpose has been taken away from them. They lament the long centuries of neglect, barely repaid by the care put into them by recently-departed hands.
I cannot be mistaken – among these ruined towers and bastions echoes the work of my former Magistrix. Where is Sandora Mirari now? Whatever she might be doing, will she know the extent of my sorrow for how we departed?
Will the others?
What about Marina?
I might never know.
Yet I did not come here to find redemption, admitted such a thing is even possible – only answers.
Their welcome could have been better: unlike the Iskalnari, the City of Veils has little love to share even without recognizing me, and they would share steel if they knew my name. Arda Vespera is still wanted, and the memory of the Day of the Cold Sun is still fresh – how could it not be?
More than anything, even more than the horrible pressure of the Sigil upon my spirit, keeping me away from the heavenly gift that has been taken away from me, the words of the Mirabo worry me.
You live only a few more years. You die alone. Unmourned, and unloved.
I refuse to believe is them, even if words from a Mirabo are believed to be equal to prophecy. I shall prove to be greater than they.
Days trickle by. I have found an expected ally in the person of the so-called Wanderer, a lonely man who seemingly comes and goes from the Borderlands. He has expressed his interest in how I dealt with the Mirabo, and I have reciprocated. That man has something I want. Safe passage into the hidden core of the Borderlands. There I will find another one of the Dreaming Jewels, which I may use to break the Sigil once and for all.
Then I will be able to once again hold the Heavens in my grasp and I shall be cold no more.
As another twilight approached, the Sun refuses me any parting words. I miss his soothing whispers. It drowns past the horizon, and I follow him for a bit, trying to peer past the dust clouds and the towers of smoke and rust, past the twisted shapes that scurry through the red dunes.
My palm holds just air.
The land turns. The hills of watch are not in the same position they used to be one hundred years ago, ten years ago. Just like the heavens, the Borderlands twists upon itself, a reflection of the orrery. The land bends.
It spirals around some yet-unsee pivot. One hidden core.
And beyond the lands of ever-shifting rust, lies the girdle of fire. Mouths of flame open up in the naked hills, vomiting cinder and smoke and molten rock. Legends have it only strange birds, birthed and killed in exploding bursts of flame, are able to live there.
And past that, smooth plains of sheer glass – where light is scattered and chases after itself, turning every sight into blindness. There the very air is a wall of uncaring brightness, too thick to pass through.
And yet, so says the Wanderer, at the core of that glass plain there is one last quarry, one last mine. There Dreaming Jewels can still be found. There my charts and the tales of the Iskalnari point to, the mirror of the clock of the heavens.
As the Sun disappears past the horizon, it beckons me to chase after it, past it.
There I must go.
Author’s Notes: thanks for reading this little world building piece. I also have had another excuse to add people with black hair, dark skin and blue eyes. It’s not like I have a type or anything! I hope you enjoyed it. Some of these suggestions will end up in Forbidden Flower in the future. I will see you tomorrow.