The wind blew fiercely as though intent on tormenting him.
As it was a westerly wind, it carried a large amount of sand with it. Reizus stood there, stock still beneath his deep hood, his long sleeve pressed against his nose and mouth.
Before him, an abandoned citadel lay as silent as death. The ruined city appeared a hazy brown through the sand-laden wind and in truth, there was not a single trace of life within. More than two hundred years ago, the outer walls that now lay buried in the sand had been destroyed at the hands of plunderers, and of the many buildings that had been set ablaze, nothing but innumerable broken pillars remained.
The city had once been called Zer Illias.
Reizus lightly held down the hood that he wore low over his eyes and moved forward, watching his surroundings as cautiously as a snake.
It’s strange, he thought as he progressed along the empty way.
Zer Tauran was a country that had risen like an illusion in this western region of the continent more than two hundred years ago, and that, like an illusion, had then disappeared. The Zerdians still yearned after that era in part because they were proud of once having had a dignity equal to that of any other country of the continent. The leaders of the city-states scattered throughout the west burned with the ambition of personally reviving Zer Tauran even as they continued to engage in bloody feuds against each other.
Yet even so…
Zer Tauran’s capital, Zer Illias, was in this state. There was no one to pour their energy into restoring it, nor anyone to even visit it. The large structure was simply left to be eroded by the sands and to decay and be lost with the passing of the years. What Reizus felt was “strange” was the thought that the Zerdians seemed to want to erase the abominable memory from their minds with a prayer-like fervour. Yet the still unforgettable glory of Zer Tauran’s name was handed down from generation to generation.
The endless wind blew incessantly. Reizus’ worn-out boots crunched through the sand. Before long, the path came to a wide staircase. The stairs wound up the hill into which they had been carved more than two centuries earlier, and here too were the obvious traces of a brutal invasion.
On either side of Reizus stood a slanted gatepost, broken from halfway up. Beyond them, broken stones of all sizes were piled into heaps and obstructed further passage. Again, there was no sign of living creatures. Not a trace could be found of the lizards and snakes that could be expected to live there, and neither were there any birds in the sky. It was as though every sound but that of the wind had been locked away into stillness, afraid of the ruins of this civilisation whose city lay wrecked and destroyed.
The Zerdians are also afraid. Reizus’ steps came to a halt and he gazed at the ruins of what had once been a temple that towered over crowds of pilgrims from the highest point in the city.
Rather than King Yasch Bazgan, the one who had held power here and who had been master of the temple was Garda, a priest to the Dragon Gods. Garda had been a sorcerer skilled at using ether. There was an anecdote about how a bishop who had rebuked him for his imperious behaviour had been publicly turned into a moth. And another one about how one summer when there had been very little rain, a farmer had come to plead before him for a reduction by half of the tithe he had to pay in crops that year.
“Oh, I see. So you want rain? Then if you want it, I will give it you,” Garda had declared, throwing out his chest. It was said that from the next day onwards for a full week, heavy rains had fallen without cease. Black clouds had formed only over the supplicant’s farm and most of his harvest had been washed away.
Garda attracted fear and dread throughout the West. According to the analysis of some historians, it was because of Garda’s existence that Yasch, a foreigner to the Zerdians, was able to establish a country in that region.
After Yasch’s death, the country fell to ruin and the fires of rebellion flared up in many quarters. The fighting was not limited to the Zerdians alone. Seizing the opportunity, savage desert tribes had attacked from the west and invaded Zer Illias. In those days, Garda had attained position as the head of sorcery and he protected the capital Zer Illias, which was severely lacking in military might, with terrifying esoteric magic.
“But in less than a year,” Reizus’ cracked lips parted in a mutter, “or no, perhaps I should say that the magical power and the several hundred believers managed to hold out for almost a year?”
Zer Illias was set alight by the invaders. It was known far and wide that the tribesmen with skin the colour of the desert sands had mercilessly and brutally slaughtered the people and destroyed their dwellings. When in the end their rough voices could be heard even as far as the temple, Garda merely uttered those words that were still transmitted in the history of the western region:
“I will never hand over the Dragon God’s Claws. Not to any king or queen, not to any archbishop no matter what divine protection he may be blessed with. No, not even if my body were to be destroyed and my ashes scattered throughout the steppes.”
The Dragon God’s Claws had served as the sovereign’s seal under the Magic Dynasty of long ago and Yasch Bazgan had received them from the land’s elders when he founded his country. There had been two of them and the descendants of the Bazgan House had inherited one which was now in the city-state of Taúlia. Garda however had left the other as an offering to the temple and to this day it had never been found.
Even though the savage tribesmen had seized sculptures, money and other treasures from the temple, of the sovereign’s seal alone they had discovered no trace. Moreover, while the hundred or more of the believers who had sequestered themselves in the temple had all slit their own throats, it was said that the remains of Garda himself were nowhere to be seen.
And thus even to this day, the Zerdians held his name in some awe. Or perhaps it should be called a fear deeply rooted within the passing generations. If someone said something that was in the least bit critical of the Zer Tauran era or of the Dragon Gods, then even if they were in the middle of the rowdiest of banquets, someone would hiss “Shhh” and press a hand to their mouth to stop them from talking. After which, the whole group would recite a prayer to the Dragon Gods to protect themselves against Garda’s vengeful spirit.
“Humph,” Reizus uttered in a voice grown hoarse and gazed once more at the temple’s ruins. For two hundred years, no hands had touched them but they had not originally been built during the Zer Tauran era. Back in those days, Yasch Bazgan had dug what appeared to be old ruins out from the sand dunes and had had them restored. Because of that, the pillars and stones were thoroughly worn down and no longer retained the aspect of a temple. The voices of the dead wailing their resentment could be heard carried on the endless wind.
If one who does not carry the sovereign’s seal sets foot in the temple of Zer Illias, they will be killed by Garda’s vengeful spirit was it? Reizus thought back to the rumours he had heard in Zerdian villages during his travels.
Garda’s ghost was said to still remain within the temple at Zer Illias, guarding one of the sovereign’s seals. Waiting for more than two hundred years for someone bearing the other seal to appear. It was also said that when the sovereign’s seal was once more complete, Garda’s spirit would be released from Zer Illias and in exchange, the city now ruled by the stillness of death and decay would be restored and the one who carried the seal would be granted tremendous magical power.
Reizus was of course not carrying the sovereign’s seal. Furthermore, although sorcery was his livelihood, he had not previously been particularly interested in Garda’s legend.
So why am I here? He wondered anew. The question had often come to him on his journey.
He had been expelled from his country. If ever set foot in the Grand Duchy of Ende again, the only destiny that awaited him was to have the country’s soldiers turn their spears against him and the sorcerers of the Bureau of Sorcery, to which he himself had once belonged, target his life.
Reizus however was not pessimistic about his own fate. He was proud of the fact that being as knowledgeable about ether as he was, he could expect to make a living no matter where he was. He had however no interest in worldly fame or status. What he wanted was an environment in which he could devote himself heart and soul to the study of sorcery. As long as it wasn’t as bound by strict religious precepts as Ende was, anywhere would do.
Should I turn my steps towards the east? When the time came to cross the border, Reizus had certainly been thinking along those lines.
To the east, beyond the country of Ryalide and the kingdom of Allion, along the great river Tīda was a wilderness stretching ever further northeast in which were said to be villages belonging to a clan that had, like Ende and Arion, handed down magic technology from ancient times. He had intended to proceed there and to devote what time he had left to his studies.
But… He himself didn’t know what whim had seized him. For some reason, the day after leaving Ende and after having stopped for a night at a post station, he had retraced his steps and, without re-crossing the border, had chosen to make his way on foot through the perilous Nouzen Mountains and to travel to the west of Ende.
His reason for doing so could accurately be called a vague premonition. If he were to express it as a sorcerer, it was something like being guided by ether. When he had awakened from sleep in his lodgings, he had found that he wanted to check with his own eyes the vestiges left by Garda, whom he had heard of from rumours and legends. And when he had crossed through Mephius and stepped into the Tauran lands, that desire had swelled to such an extent that he could barely control himself.
How much time had passed since he had left Ende? Now the ruins of Zer Illias that he had unceasingly yearned for were before his eyes. But he felt no sense of elation. Instead, his heart seemed to have grown hollow and as the wind blew through, it echoed within that empty space.
Ruins and ancient history.
Reizus had already passed sixty. No matter how wide the dominions acquired, nor how great the glory attained, with the passing of time, the names of cities, civilisations and legends would all be buried in the sand.
The study of sorcery. My blood flows for that alone. I have no other pleasures. For that, I would sacrifice my family, my life, my heart and if necessary even the soul that marks me as human. I have no regrets. None, and yet…
As he stood before the pile of ruins he was seized by doubts about the results he had achieved in the studies he had pursued at the cost of sacrificing himself. Reizus had very little time left. The research themes for him to puzzle over increased day by day, and just thinking about how little he would be able to accomplish before his life ran out was almost enough to drive him to despair.
I too will decay and die. My body will rot, eventually my bones will turn to sand and be scattered by the wind and my heart… Where will my heart go? The sixty years of knowledge and wisdom that I have accumulated, the many sorcery techniques that I have clarified or adapted, who will inherit them? Will my life become someone else’s stepping stone while my body and heart fade into oblivion? Just as I stepped over so many that I knew nothing about.
Until then, Reizus had not realised his own age, nor the weight of the years piled upon his body. Before he noticed it, he had fallen to both his knees in the sand. He felt so unbearably sad that his actions were like those of a young man. Although knowing it would do no good, driven by the desire to berate himself, he was about to slam his head on the floor of the ruins.
The wind that licked his cheeks changed.
When he realised it, Reizus stood up with an agility that didn’t match his age and jumped backwards in a single breath. Thanks to the artefact he had fitted into his boots, he was able to move as though his body were as light as a feather.
As Reizus jumped and landed seven, eight metres away, he turned his eyes upwards. Within the opening of the slanted gatepost was a shadow which had not been there a moment ago. It’s four paws firmly planted on unsteady footholds, there stood a beast with golden fur. Even if he called upon the wisdom gathered by Ende’s Bureau of Sorcery of which he had once been a member, Reizus did not have the slightest idea what this beast was. The mane around its neck brought to mind a lion, but the dull red glint of its eyes and the tightly-packed, blueish-green scales that only covered its face made him wonder if it wasn’t a type of dragon that was as yet undiscovered anywhere in the world. In any case –
Reizus pulled a dagger from at his breast. Indeed, in any case, wherever this unknown beast had appeared from, its immediate aim was clear. Its head was lowered and in the pair of red eyes that peered his way, there was not a speck of either intelligence or mercy. Peeking out from its upraised lips were a great many fangs every bit as sharp as the blade in Reizus’ hand. They glaringly revealed that its instinct would be to crunch through his body.
“Certainly, I was looking back on my life and feeling hopeless,” Reizus twisted a single cheek into a crooked smile, “but any way you put it, ending my life inside your damn stomach is out of the question.”
The sand-laden wind still blew. It seemed to have gotten a bit stronger.
The beast moved. It jumped from the gatepost without a sound. Reizus’ body lightly drew a semi-circle. He swung his dagger to scythe at the beast’s legs. But the beast was faster than expected. His aim in no way erred, but still the beast’s claws tore into Reizus’ chest.
While staggering, Reizus quickly looked back. The beast had landed just in front of the bottom of the stairs and was about to turn its head towards him. It had lost the right paw that Reizus’ dagger had severed. But not a single drop of blood was it shedding and neither did it appear to be in pain. Furthermore, its posture hadn’t faltered in the slightest.
Rather than being “severed”, it felt as though its right paw simply happened to be “missing”.
Reizus directed his gaze downwards. There were three incisions in his chest. A large amount of blood was seeping out, but what Reizus focussed his attention on wasn’t his own wound. It was on the tip of the dagger that he grasped in his right hand. He couldn’t see the colour of blood there.
Both ends of his lips curled upwards. Even though it was a battle injury that would have caused a brawny young warrior to turn pale, he smiled. With a loud clanging sound, the dagger fell to the stairs that innumerable pilgrims had once ascended. Having thrown away his only weapon, Reizus held out his left hand to the beast. On the wrist of that arm, he wore a jewel-encrusted bracelet. He raised his right palm above the portion with the jewels.
The beast lowered its posture again. It kicked the stone floor with its three legs. In a single bound, it swooped in, aiming for Reizus’ throat.
Reizus’ right hand traced a complicated movement above the jewels. His gesture was as though he were drawing an invisible pattern and at that moment, his left sleeve suddenly bulged. The beast’s fangs were almost at Reizus’ jugular and its claws at his chest.
“Nuh!” Reizus let out a spirited cry and a swirling vortex was released from his bulging sleeve.
Nor was it wind any less intense than the natural kind – on the contrary, it was a far stronger wind than that which gushed out from Reizus’ left arm. When the wind dashed over the beast’s snout, its figure suddenly collapsed.
The claws and fangs that had been about to eradicate Reizus’ life, the ferocious countenance and the golden body – still suspended in mid-air, the beast crumbled and scattered. In the blink of an eye, it disintegrated into minute particles that were carried away by the wind, forming into a glittering, streaming tail that flew off into the sky. The beast had not been a thing of this world. It was an aggregation of sand.
“Splendid.” Reizus became aware that there were the figures of humans in his surroundings. Five people encircled him. As though he had had a presentiment of it, his face showed no surprise. Each of them had hoods entirely pulled over their heads and wore robes adorned with complicated embroidery.
“Was it you bastards who used sorcery to conjure up that beast?” Reizus asked. The hand he rubbed his chest with showed no trace of clotted blood. When he had perceived that what he had been enacting a desperate struggle with was an illusionary beast that could not exist, Reizus’ wound had vanished. Of course, had he have been pierced by those claws and fangs without realising that they were phantoms, he would have died. Strong auto-suggestion was a life-threatening thing. Since he himself specialised in the arts of illusion, he was well aware of their effectiveness and of their risks.
“Are you the grave keepers of Zer Illias? Then you have no reason to mind me. I won’t desecrate Garda’s remains. I’ll be leaving after this.”
“You will be leaving? Then why did you come here?” From among the figures that he assumed to be sorcerer, one man spoke. He must have been about the same age as Reizus.
Reizus faltered for a moment. The question of why he had come here was one he had been asking himself just a while ago.
“It was just…”
“You were called,” asserted the sorcerer, forestalling Reizus who was about to say that it had been a whim.
Starting with the man who gave a single nod, they performed an unexpected action towards Reizus. Suddenly, wind swirled up and rushed towards him – was not what happened. Instead, all of them knelt where they were.
“We have been waiting.”
As one, they lowered their head. This too left Reizus dumbfounded.
“You were waiting? Are you saying that you called me from Ende?”
“This way,” said a woman’s voice. As she wore a hood, her face could not be seen but her manner when she took Reizus’ hand made it easy to imagine her supple body even through her baggy robes. At that moment, his consciousness was severed for an instant.
When he became aware, their surroundings were wrapped in darkness. The constant wind of sand had suddenly stopped. Blinking in surprise, Reizus realised that without his noticing it, he was now inside of a stone chamber. A narrow passageway stretched out before him and opened into a room in which there was something like an altar.
The sorcerers surrounded the altar. Each of them held a cup in their hands in which flames flickered, and raised them up.
“This way,” the old sorcerer beckoned Reizus. From start to finish, Reizus understood neither the reason nor the meaning. But somehow, feeling that he couldn’t go against this, he stepped forward. He held no fear.
The strong pounding in his chest was bred from hope in an uncertain future.
I was… called.
The man’s words echoed in his head. They were probably within the ruins of the sacred temple. Rather than anxiety about what was going to happen to him, the curiosity characteristic of a researcher was uppermost within him.
When he climbed the short flight of steps to the altar, an old stone coffin was lying there. The pounding in his chest was now beating so hard that it seemed it would destroy that solitary man from the inside. Two of the hooded sorcerers knelt on either side of the sarcophagus and lifted the lid. Although they didn’t seem to have put any great strength into it, a narrow gap appeared between the lid and the coffin, allowing Reizus to peer inside.
“Ooh,” unconsciously, a groan escaped from Reizus’ lips. The flames held aloft by the sorcerers illuminated the figure of the person stretched out inside the coffin. The flesh however had completely dried and the figure was like a wooden doll. It was Mīla. Her appearance was the same as when she had died, her hands were clasped at her waist and she protectively held a small box.
The sunken eye sockets could no longer express emotions as they had when she was alive, but the mouth was open wide as though she had let out scream just before her life ran out. Or perhaps as though she was cursing Reizus, who had desecrated her grave. At that moment, for the first time, Reizus’ blood ran cold in fear.
“Oh, as expected. You received the seal of approval.”
As the man muttered, Reizus felt as though his soul had been raked by claws. At that moment, Mīla’s hands moved. He wondered whether this was some trick played by the sorcerers, but as though he was enthralled by her , Reizus couldn’t stir. Her slender arms were jerkily raised in the air. As he watched, the hands that just a moment earlier had been clasping the small box now held it up before him.
This is – When the cover of the box lifted up of its own accord, a dark red light struck Reizus’ eyes. A jewel. It was of a size that needed to be held in both hands. Something like a bubble was floating inside it and within it was buried something like a fragment.
Reizus brought his face closer to see it better.
With a snapping sound, a crack appeared in the jewel. As he watched, more cracks appeared and the jewel broke from within. Immediately after, the white fragment moved liked a snake.
After, there was no chance to utter a sound. As he wondered whether the fragment had leapt into the air, a sharp pain ran through Reizus’ forehead.
Although it was a pain strong enough to make him want to crouch down on the spot, his body had lost all freedom of movement. He clearly understood that the white fragment was eating away at his brow and, accompanied by an immense heat, was crawling into his head. He wanted to scream. Writhing in agony, he wanted to shake it off with his hand. However, his body wouldn’t act as he wished and unable even to cry out, he could only endure as it was slowly eaten away.
On the other side of his barely closed eyelids, a vast darkness expanded. Countless stars were scattered across the night sky above. At the same time, the point that Reizus looked down on was tightly packed with people. All of them wore black garments and as they prostrated themselves, it was as though heaven and earth were painted the same colour.
There had been no such scene in Reizus’ life. And yet, the vision felt so real and so vivid that he shivered.
“Hear me, you all,” Reizus – or possibly one with the same appearance as Reizus – cried out from on high to the devotees who thronged beneath him like a black sea. “All gods who live on earth are destined to die. Just as the dragons that once controlled heaven and earth did. However, the dragons did not perish. While the dragons’ bodies have been claimed by death, their souls remain in this world; they have whispered to me, they have commanded me, they would have me make the preparations for their second coming to this world. Before the gods die out and humanity meets its destruction, you should dedicate all you possess to me. The wealthy merchants their gold, the strong swordsmen their might, the sages their wisdom, those with nothing their lives!”
As soon as Reizus raised his hands, the sky shook.
Thereupon, one of the stars shook free from the sky and fell diagonally through the darkness before his eyes. After which, stars fell in quick succession, forming innumerable rays of light. The light formed into a single lump and dispelled everything that Reizus had been watching - the people, the sky, the darkness, but more than that, the seething radiance seemed to pierce through his body then burst forth.
Spurred on by the intense radiance, Reizus opened both his eyes.
It was the same as before: a narrow, dimly-lit stone chamber with none beside him but the five sorcerers. But a change had occurred. Within Reizus himself.
Pain, fear, curiosity – all that had dominated him until just moments ago had vanished. In their place was a vigorous strength such as he had never felt before, a kind of spiritual awakening, and also, a hatred stronger than anything.
“Please tell us,” from among the kneeling sorcerers, the woman asked. Her voice quivered slightly. It wasn’t only the woman. The shoulders of all five sorcerers shook and their voices cried out. “Please tell us. Your Glorious Name.”
“My name. My name is. I am… …”
Reizus tried to answer. From the time he had been born sixty years ago, he had always called himself by that name.
However, his voice utterly refused to pass through his lips. His expression was bewildered, but after the slightest of intervals, he nodded as though having understood something. His eyes held an increasingly fiery radiance.
“Yes, I am –”