“A wizard comes.”
The rasping voice faded into the throbbing shadows as Damaris glided forward into the endless night. The soft vapors of creation churned around her ethereal limbs. She watched a pair of enormous blood-red tendrils undulate through the clouded void, far out beyond the curve of the crimson moon, and she yearned to know what it felt like to be so vast, weightless and free, unconstrained by the needs of baser flesh, both alien and eternal.
“A wizard?” She called out to the void, “O beautiful Sholleth, your gifts are my shield and my cloak. He will never find me.”
The rasping voice echoed back across the heaving expanse of wisp and starlight, “This one is different. I want him to find you.”
Damaris felt only the smallest flicker of inward surprise. Hide from the storm, stand in the storm, it was all the same to her. “Yes, mistress.”
“Go.” The rasp boomed across the burning night sky. “Earn your next reward.”
Damaris plummeted out of the trance, her soul flung down out of the heavens. She watched the red moon shrivel, the great dancing arms vanish, and the intoxicating sea of stars fade to a mere scattering of pale lights. Down and down she fell, faster and faster, and then she slammed into her body. The impact threw her mortal coil across the sandy deck of the decaying dunewreck, and she tumbled against a cracked railing. Lying on her back, she stared up at the cold white stars. The silver crescent of the greater moon Qamar drifted low in the southern sky, but the dull red eye of the lesser moon Qaray hung directly overhead, staring down at her. Silent. Still.
Damaris moved slowly, hating how small and filthy and frail she now felt in her own skin, in her own world. Crawling across the ancient boards of the gritty deck, the air tasted of salt and flint and copper, as it always did. But now she tasted too much salt, even for the Sinking Waste. The wind reeked of human magic. The wizard was close.
When she reached the open hatch and the creaking ladder leading down to her tilted cabin, Damaris sat and collected herself. Straightened her tattered brown robes. Braided her matted brown hair. Retied her rotting sandals.
She found her mask tangled in her hair and hood, and carefully fixed it over her nose and mouth. The wooden talisman felt cold against her cheeks, but quickly warmed with her trapped breath. She stroked the carved features of the mask, the wide smiling lips, the many curling tentacles. Never having shaped a piece of wood before in her life, she had whittled and etched the design with a dull knife over one very long, very frantic night of visions and voices, prophecies and promises. Agony and ecstasy, as the poets said.
Damaris stood and paced the sloping deck of the dunewreck to scan the horizon. The desert stretched out in softly undulating waves of white sand and salt in every direction. To the north, the black shadows of the starlit mesas stood in silence, ignorant of the passing centuries and the names they had been given. Mage Hat. Devil’s Table. That was where the demons came from, mostly. She had seen four in the last month, huge limping things with white skin and black blood, smoking in the clear sunlight. But there were no fuming monstrosities out tonight.
To the south and east, the desert churned slowly, sleepily. The great sandswirls spun in their eternal dance, dozens of them, modest and massive, drawing down the old sand and vomiting up the new. Sometimes she would see a dead vulture lying on one of the huge sand vortices, and she would watch in silent contemplation as the little corpse followed its decaying orbit across the face of the desert until it finally vanished into oblivion.
Tonight she saw nothing.
Once upon a time, the wreck had boasted three masts. Now only one remained, pointing feebly at the indifferent stars. She climbed the scarred mast with her bare hands and ruined sandals. The small chitinous growths on her fingertips bit deep into the wind-blasted wood, and soon she clung to the top of the pole, and looked out again.
Still she saw nothing. No shadows. No movement. No wizard.
Damaris climbed down and paused at the hatch to look up at red Qaray. The tiny moon stared hungrily at her. For a mad instant, she imagined she could see tiny slender limbs whirling around it. She caressed her masked lips, and then went down the ladder and slept on her bed of sand.
In the morning, she emerged from her shelter and looked about at the familiar horizon. A dark shadow stretched across the southern sky, threatening to scour the desert clean with shrieking winds and clawing sands. But it would pass her by. She knew the desert well.
Damaris loosened her mask and scooped up a few handfuls of dust and sand for her breakfast, lapping up the dry detritus from her cupped palm. She felt nothing as she ate. No taste, no texture, no temperature, and afterwards, no satisfaction. She used to long for the cool flowing sensation of drinking water, and the warm savory sauces dripping from a roasted goat, and the hot spices on her mother’s stewed vegetables. She used to cling to the memory of eating and drinking, but as the years passed it had all slipped away. She could barely remember the words, much less the sensations.
Now she never hungered. Never thirsted. Never ached or burned from illness or poison.
Such were the gifts offered by the rasping voice and the dancing red arms.
With her mask back in place, Damaris sat against the broken railing of the dunewreck and began her daily meditations. She focused her mind inward and outward, trying to bend reality to her whims. And as the hours passed, a thin scattering of warm sand slid across the deck to form a simple nautilus-spiral, and then it gathered up into the shape of a kitten no larger than her hand. The sand-kitten scampered and tumbled around her feet for a while, and then curled up for a nap and crumbled back into the pale dust.
She pulled a dark lock of hair forward and stared at it, reaching out with her mind, with her soul, to push and pull at the thin strands. As she watched, the lock grew a bit longer and bluer. Bluer than the faded hue of the sky, a blue she had seen on a beetle, once. She couldn’t quite remember where.
With a gentle squint, she made the vision in her left eye sharper, sharp enough to count the grains of sand on the far side of the deck. At least, she thought she could. It was hard to be certain, sometimes.
With the hardened tips of her fingers, she etched little doodles into the deck and rails. Long curling tentacles covered in flower blossoms. Great staring eyes with cat ears and tails. The wreck was covered in them.
Shortly after noon, she felt something approaching her hermitage. A small ball of warmth intruded on her thoughts, tugging her attention toward the world beyond her wreck, off to the south west. The warmth felt small and fragile. Alive, but simple. It was a feeling that intruded on her thoughts every few days, the sense that some small creature had entered her domain. A vulture, or salt viper, or even a greater scorpion. With her sharp fingertips, Damaris climbed the mast and peered out over the desert.
It was a vulture, again. The black bird hung seemingly motionless above the white sands, riding the thermals.
But why was it there? What had tempted the scavenger so deep into the Sinking Waste? She willed her left eye to focus ever tighter on the distant salt crest below the hovering bird.
She felt him the instant that she saw him. A tiny black figure strode slowly across the desert, right at the edge of a massive sand vortex. As his body cast shadows in the light and judders in the wind, his soul crawled across the desert void with weight and thought and ambition. She felt him enter her sphere of the world, pulsing with bloody life and arcane memories.
He was still hours and hours away on foot, but he was coming. She studied the land calmly, dispassionately. If the wizard had any sense at all, then he would find the safe path between the sandswirls, the narrow meandering trail of firm salt-crust that would lead him east, clear past the wreck.
That was no good. Sholleth wanted him to find her. With a slow exhalation, Damaris focused on the great turning wheels of sand quietly churning and swallowing the surface of the desert. Some of them spread as wide as a hundred camels end-to-end, wide enough to be sighted from afar, to be feared and avoided by any sane person with eyes to see. They protected her dunewreck from the wider world, protected her from threats and distractions. But now she needed them to move.
She closed her eyes and felt her soul loosen from her flesh as she rose into the trance. But instead of flying across the dark void in search of her mistress, Damaris only traveled a few hundred paces from the rotting ship. She felt the desert grinding and turning beneath her, felt the soft sand and salt twisting into mighty funnels as it sank into the rocks far below the surface, guided by the very bones of the earth.
If she wanted to move the sandswirls, she needed to move the rocks. So down she went, feeling with ethereal hands and feet, sensing the currents of the deeper earth even farther below her. When she found the rocky slopes and chasms beneath the desert floor, she swam through the surging tide of sand and salt, and she began to claw at the ancient bedrock. Again and again, she dragged her spectral fingers across the stone slope worn smooth by eons of grinding sand.
It was exhausting work, holding her soul steady deep within the vortex, focused on the rock wall, trying to tear loose even the thinnest layer of stone. Her thoughts began to tumble, growing numb from the monotony of defying the vortex and clawing at the rock, scraping away tiny granules of stone and salt and crystal and bone. But a little was all that she needed. She scraped and clawed and scratched, and the shape of the vortex high above her shifted.
Soul-weary and sense-numb, she rose back up through the churning sand to find her leaning wreck and her motionless body. Even now, exhausted and dazed, she still reveled in her soft and shapeless existence within the ether, free of all pain and certainty and boundaries. She was nothing and everything, immortal and limitless. Anything was possible.
With a little effort, she sank back down into her flesh and exchanged her spectral freedom for corporeal weight and filth and slowness. She crawled to the railing and saw that she had succeeded. The edges of the vortex had shifted ever so slightly, closing off the eastern trail and creating a new one that led to the leaning dunewreck.
Too tired to stand, too tired to even feel satisfied with her work, she crept on her belly to the hatch and fell down to her bed of sand in the slanted crook of the corner, out of the sun and the wind, to sleep. With any luck, she would wake before he arrived.
* * *
Damaris awoke to the blurry sight of a dark-haired man crouching over her, reaching for her face. She grunted and jerked away, banging her head on the wall behind her. The man raised his empty hands in an innocent gesture and shifted back to sit a few paces from her. A blood-soaked banadged clung to his left hand. His curling black hair hung to his shoulders, framing an angular face with a confident nose and laughing eyes. Strange symbols ran around his black cloak in great wheels of pale blue stitching. He reeked of salt, of arcane magics.
“So you are alive.” He grinned a young, easy grin. “I wasn’t sure. Not with the mask. Funny things, those masks. I’ve always wondered about them, and you lot. Dusteaters, I mean. I didn’t read much about you when I was at the tower. Is it a family thing? A religion?” He leaned back and glanced around the empty wooden cabin, at the blank walls and sandy floors. “What’s a pretty little thing like you doing out here? Are you all alone here? On the run? Hiding out?”
Damaris sat up against the wall and calmed her breathing as he talked. He seemed content to go on talking to himself, asking idle questions and expecting no answers. She took those precious seconds to center her thoughts, to regain her wider senses of the desert and the moons…but found they all eluded her. Her brain was still a tarry mire of blurs and pains where thoughts struggled to form. She had no sense of time, no feeling beyond her wooden limbs. Her journey below the desert to reshape the vortex had been more exhausting than she expected. Her lids closed, her head nodded. She just wanted to slump down and sleep forever.
But she didn’t have forever. The wizard had come, he was here now, and she had a task to complete. She had to—
“You…” The words came out slow and slurred. She swallowed.
“Easy there.” He went on grinning. “I should explain, I didn’t know what to think when I found you here, so I may have placed just a small enchantment, just the lightest touch, on you, just to keep you calm when you saw me. It’ll pass in a moment or two, but I didn’t want you to be startled and try to tear my throat out.” He nodded meaningfully at her hands.
She curled her fingers to hide the brown chitinous claws. Her mind awakened by a few degrees as her vision grew clearer, but her body felt leaden and the very air seemed dense and syrupy. She wanted to tear away her clothes and skin to escape the weight of it all, but her hands refused to obey, leaving her trapped under the weight of the sultry air.
The young wizard wrapped his arms around his knees and went on smiling. “I’m Malachi, by the way. From Sahar, originally, but not really from anywhere, at the moment.” He glanced away and the nodded at the walls. “I like the artwork. Have you been living here long?”
Damaris nodded. Her muscles were warming and loosening, slowly.
“So, about that word, Dusteater.” Malachi looked nervous. “It’s just a name, right? Dusteater? You don’t really eat dust, do you?”
She nodded her head.
“But surely you also drink water,” he nodded encouragingly. Even desperately. “Everything needs water. You have some water here somewhere, don’t you?”
She shook her head.
“No?” He sagged and looked away. “No water at all…?”
Again she shook her head.
Malachi the wizard grimaced. “I don’t know if I care to know how that works.”
Behind her mask, Damaris smiled. The gesture came easily, and she suddenly realized that the charm had passed and she was free to move normally again. Now she merely felt exhausted in her head. One problem at a time. She inhaled and spoke carefully, “It works well enough. How long did I sleep?”
“No idea. It’s an hour past sunset, give or take.” He sighed and stared miserably at the floor. “So you just live here, alone, in the middle of the desert, eating dust?”
“I do some things.” She straightened up, adjusted her hood and hair away from her eyes, and made certain her mask was securely in place.
“Sure, sure. Where did you get that mask?” he asked.
“I made it. We make them.”
He shrugged. “They’re a bit ghastly, don’t you think? They’re all fangs and tongues and demonic things. Meant to scare the riff-raff, I suppose?”
“What riff-raff?” She looked around the empty cabin.
“Point taken. Then what are they for?”
“That is a…secret.” She couldn’t see any wands or rods or books on him. But he must have them, tucked away inside his cloak, no doubt. Because that’s how wizards take power. With things. With tools and words, playing with the forces of the cosmos like children sneaking about in a smithy without permission. “Our masks are…for us.”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes.
“It’s a long way from Sa…” Damaris suddenly realized she didn’t know where Sahar was, or anywhere else nearby. The only names that came easily to mind were the moons, the mesas, and the other Dusteaters she occasionally encountered out on the dunes.
“Sahar?” He nodded at her. “A very long way indeed. I left in a hurry, and to be terribly honest, I’m not quite certain where I’m going just now.”
“Because I made a mistake.” He looked away. “I wanted to help people. Really, that’s all. But you know what they say about good intentions. I just…I wanted to escape this desert. It’s all dying, the crops, the herds, everything!”
“Sholleth knows.” She nodded. “This world dies soon. And us with it.”
“Exactly! We can’t stay here much longer, and I wanted to rediscover our ancestral homeland in the great realms below the surface of the world. And I did! They said I couldn’t but I did. I did it. But…”
He inhaled. “I also unleashed a small horde of demons, or two, and destroyed a city, or two. Thousands of innocent people died. Tens of thousands. Crushed. Burned. Torn apart and eaten by those things. All my fault. Every last one on my head. So now everyone wants my head, of course.”
“Of course,” she echoed. Is this what her mistress wanted from him? Knowledge that could destroy cities? Or perhaps his knowledge of demons? Or was it something else entirely?
“But I did save two cities,” he said indignantly, weakly, still avoiding her eyes. “One of them all by myself. Not that anyone will take that into consideration.”
“So now I’m a man without a country. On the run. On the lamb. There’s probably an entire army hunting for me as we speak.”
“You’re hurt.” She gestured to his bandaged hand.
“Oh, this? I was attacked by a demon, one of the big ones.” He glanced away and sighed wearily. “It caught me by surprise, but I dealt with it.”
“Oh. You look tired.” She shuffled crab-like along the wall, and gestured to the empty bed of sand. “Here. Sleep. It’s soft.”
He flashed a brief smile. “Sorry, but I make it a policy never to leave myself at the mercy of strange masked women with scary fingers. No offense.”
Damaris grimaced behind her mask as she curled up in the far corner, trying to appear small and unthreatening. As she did so, she exhaled slowly and gathered her senses to plunge into his thoughts and force him to sleep…and found she couldn’t. The focus would not come, the inner stillness, the quiet connection to the wider world. She was still too wasted from changing the desert path.
I need more time.
She nodded to the wizard and went to the ladder. “I’ll sleep up top. You can close the hole.” She gestured at the discarded hatch, weathered and cracked in the corner, and then she climbed out of the cabin without waiting for his reply.
Damaris retreated to the far end of the dunewreck and nestled down against two sturdy rails. A cold wind whined across the desert, whistling sharply as it passed through the chinks and slivers of the ancient ship. After a moment, she heard the wooden hatch being fitted into place over the ladder.
Let him sleep.
In a few hours, she would be strong enough to do what needed to be done.
She looked up at the red moon, longing to slip free of her pathetic little body enslaved to gravity and time and age, longing to fly up among the stars, to swim through the ethereal void, to speak to her mistress…but she didn’t dare yet. Not without doing as she had been told.
So she would wait.
She was good at waiting.
Time slithered across the desert as Qamar’s silvery glow passed overhead. Qaray hung motionless above the dunewreck, as though nailed in place to the eternal night. Damaris dozed, not quite slipping out of consciousness, never close enough to oblivion to dream.
* * *
She snapped fully awake on the star-drenched deck. Something had prodded her weary mind, something warm and moving. A living thing had entered her domain, and she could feel it. Relief swaddled her pounding heart. Her powers had returned! She could complete her task.
But as she stood up, she turned to look toward the throbbing pulse of life out upon the cold black desert…and saw a man. Not a crawling viper or a floating vulture, but a man. He crept along the narrow path between the great sandswirls, and a steel blade flashed on his hip.
Damaris dropped to her knees to hide behind the railing. She froze, unable to think for a long, anguished moment. Why? Why now? Her mind was clear, she was ready to face the wizard and do as her mistress desired, but this man and his sword would reach the dunewreck in just a few minutes.
It must be that army he spoke of, hunting for him.
It must be some sort of…hunter.
She dug her sharp fingers into the sun-bleached wood and carved four deep grooves as she crushed her hand into a fist.
It isn’t fair!
Then she exhaled, opened her hand, and accepted what had to be done.
Moving swiftly to the railing, she leapt down to the cold sand and started staggering along the narrow path between the hungry vortices. Chips of wood and flakes of bone glided around and around the desert maws, slowly approaching their final journey down into the belly of the desert. Damaris saw the dark figure of the man stop in his tracks. She could not see his face, but she could feel his eyes on her.
She took wider and clumsier steps, trying to appear injured or exhausted or…what was it called? Drunk? Anything to appear weak and uncertain, anything to lure him closer without drawing his sword.
As she stumbled along, she loosened the sash at her waist and let a flap of cloth fly open, revealing a flash of skin.
The dark figure straightened up taller, and began walking toward her, no longer skulking as he had before.
Behind her mask, Damaris smiled faintly.
As the man came closer, she saw the many weapons on his belt and upon his back and tucked into his boots. Leather-wrapped handles of steel and bone and chitin nestled in every fold of cloth on him. And now she could see how he loomed over her, nearly two heads taller, and probably twice her weight.
Maybe not so easy.
“Who are you?” he called out, one hand resting on the pommel of his scimitar. “Where did you come from?”
“The wizard,” she gasped in a high, warbling voice. “He tried to enchant me, tried to make me drink a potion.” She let out a soft sob and hoped it sounded real.
“Wizard? He’s here?” The man drew his scimitar and charged toward her along the narrow path of solid sand, but his eyes were looking up beyond her, toward the black outline of the dunewreck. “Where is he?”
Damaris watched the hunter pass her, his attention fixed on the wooden ship. And when his blade was well away from her, she reached out and slashed her chitinous claws across the side of his throat.
Dark blood sprayed out across the shifting sand. The man gasped and coughed wetly as he clamped one hand to the side of his neck. Damaris stepped back, but he turned too quickly. He swung his scimitar twice, the first a clumsy slash across the sand at her feet, but the second cut bit into her thigh and instantly she felt her leg go weak and cold. She fell to the ground, her mind a sloshing bowl of cold panic, and started crawling away.
The hunter staggered after her, but his foot went astray of the path and sank into the soft dust of the sandswirl. Crying out in surprise, he dropped his blade as his leg plunged down to the hip and he reached out with both hands to claw at the firm path.
Damaris turned at the sound of his cry and saw him halfway drowned already as the rotating current dragged at his legs. Then she looked down at the deep gash below her hip and the shining black pool of blood reflecting the light of the moons. Too much blood.
Even if she gorged on dust and sand, she would still bleed to death before she could heal.
I need to eat something else.
She clawed her way back along the path as fast as her cold, numb leg would let her and thrust the sharp tips of her fingers into the arms of the sinking hunter. He stuck fast to the spot, pinned by her claws, her weight just enough to withstand the pull of the sand. His head lolled to the side, the wound in his throat barely bleeding now.
With a practiced shake of her head, she loosened her mask to uncover her mouth. Stretching her jaws wide, she took hold of the dying man’s flesh, and she fed.
An hour later, she sat on the deck and watched the last dark hint of the hunter slip below the surface of the vortex, dragged under by the weight of his own weapons. Damaris calmly inspected her leg, the wound now little more than a pale scar. She wiggled her toes and massaged her muscles, finding it all as it should be. She was whole and strong, and clear-headed.
And she was alone with the wizard.
She turned toward the hatch. With a quiet push and jostle, she removed the old wooden planks and slipped down the crooked ladder to the cabin floor, where she found the young wizard lying on his side, propped up on his elbow, and watching her with a curious smile.
“I should probably thank you,” he said. “For taking care of that little problem outside. You know, I think that fellow may have wanted to hurt me.”
He shrugged. “I saw a little, I heard a little. You know how it is with wizards. We like to be careful.”
Damaris watched his hands, but still saw no wand or rod, no sack of elements, and no book. But she didn’t like the way he stared at her, confident and amused, as though he knew everything and had her well in hand. “So what happens now?”
“That all depends on you.” He paused. “Were you thinking of eating me now, or saving me for breakfast?”
“Eat you?” She blinked. “No. Why? Because I ate the hunter? No, that was something different, because I was hurt. No, that’s nothing to do with you. Of course I’m not going to eat you.”
What a strange question! Aren’t wizard supposed to know things?
He narrowed his eyes. “Let’s say I believe you.” He sat up and leaned back against the wall of the cabin. “Tell me truly, what is a Dusteater? Because I’m beyond curious now. And admittedly a twinge fearful for my safety, but mostly curious.”
“We…” She looked away at the wall, then back at him. How to explain it all to a stranger? “We serve the High Ones, the Star Walkers, the Night Lords of Qaray.”
“Qaray? As in the moon Qaray?” He squinted at her. “Are you saying there are people on the moon?”
She hesitated. “They are not…people.”
In halting words and half-finished phrases that trailed off in no particular direction, she slowly described the incomprehensible beings that dwelled in the eternal night beyond the tiny red moon. There were many such creatures, and she only knew scraps and hints about some, bits of information gleaned from her encounters with other Dusteaters, equally jealous of their cosmic secrets as she was of hers.
Leaping excitedly from one idea to the next, she recounted in disjointed snippets her first terrifying and ecstatic glimpses of the titanic being that called itself Sholleth, the Writhing Dream, her mistress of ever-shifting arms and ever-whispering mouths. Over time, the dreams had become visions that led her out into the desert where they became trance-like communions, spiritual journeys far across the ethereal void, far from the horrors of skin and bone, deep into the ancient expanses of dust and cloud and sea, between burning stars and frozen giants, where words like “paradise” and “nightmare” lost all meaning, where a single soul could swell and evolve and ascend forever…
The wizard listened to her ramblings with a thoughtful pout, always quiet, sometimes nodding, often narrowing his eyes in confusion.
How to describe Sholleth herself? It seemed trite and meaningless to speak of her great winding arms sweeping through the red mists, her golden eyes turned toward the stars, her gaping mouths rasping out their endless riddles and demands. Better to speak of her limitless power, her boundless experience and vision, her god-like desires and designs that could only be measured in eons and ages, in the passing not of mere civilizations but entire races and worlds, acts of creation and destruction that she, Damaris, was still struggling to comprehend.
The wizard almost spoke when she mentioned these acts, but let the moment pass uninterrupted.
Damaris found herself listing the gifts bestowed on her by Sholleth, mutations of her flesh, transformations of her spirit. Mere words could barely describe the infusion of cosmic energies and cellular engines that allowed her to survive on mere dust, to recover and heal from any injury, to sense the pulse of distant living matter, to travel through the earth and ether as freely as a mote of light, to cease aging entirely…
“Really?” the wizard pulled back, his eyes narrow, his lip frowning.
She broke off her meandering praises and litanies, blinking in distraction, and looked at him. “Really what?”
She nodded and pulled away her clothes to show the fresh white scar on her thigh. “That hunter cut me very deep, but now the cut is gone.”
“Any cleric can heal. That doesn’t mean you’re a day older than you look. How long have you been out here, anyway?”
Damaris frowned. Her life was a flood of suns and moons and stars, but now she couldn’t even recall the names of the days or months, much less the number of years.
He looked bored and skeptical. He leaned away.
I’m losing him!
“Uhm.” Her hands trembled as she struggled to think of an answer. “I’m sorry, I can’t quite…the prince! I remember the prince. He had one eye, with a cut on his cheek, and some white hair.” She smiled triumphantly. “Is he still the prince?”
Malachi looked even more confused. “Prince of what?”
“Of…Yumar! Yumar, of course.”
The wizard’s face went slack, his eyes wide. “Yumar? Yumar was destroyed fifty years ago.” He leaned forward. “And the Scarred Prince died searching for the lost city of Urva Masina, over two centuries ago.” He stared at her, into her. “You remember the face of the Scarred Prince of Yumar? You’ve really been here for that long?”
She shrugged. “I suppose so.”
He crept a bit closer again, a hint of wild wonder in his eyes. “This Sholleth has given you all these gifts? These powers?”
“In exchange for what?”
“Service.” Damaris smiled at him behind her mask. “She has plans, designs, desires. I serve her desires. But she rarely asks for anything. Mostly I am her anchor in this world. There are others, of course, other anchors, other people, but I don’t know them. Through me, Sholleth can touch the earth and air, to understand how creatures here live and think. I am her eyes and fingers, her ears and tongue.”
“And what exactly does she do with this knowledge of our world?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Maybe nothing. Maybe come here and swallow all living things into her. She isn’t like us. She doesn’t think the way we think. Sometimes she seems as vast and unknowable as the angels, and sometimes she seems as simple and unknowable as a worm. Maybe she’s both.”
The wizard’s gaze drifted away in thought. “It seems like a small price to pay for such powerful gifts. Actually, it seem like no price at all.” He looked at her again, as though she were all that existed in the world. “Does your mistress force you to live out here in the desert, alone?”
“No. I want to live here, so I can focus on my mistress and on becoming more like her. Living near people is…” She frowned. “…distracting.”
“But I could serve her and still live in the cities and go about my studies?” He leaned even closer to her, his eyes aglow with excitement, possibility, and desire.
He wants this! I have done it!
“If you wish.” She nodded, eyes wide with sincerity.
He crept a bit closer to her, shifting himself up the sandy incline of the sloping cabin floor. “And how does one become an associate of your mistress? Rites, spells? Blood sacrifice?”
“Well, she took me into her service through my dreams and visions, as I came to understand her and promised myself to her. It took a long time, reaching out through the ether. So many tantalizing caresses of the spirit, haunting, teasing, enchanting hints and whispers.” She inhaled sharply at the memory. Damaris shivered and looked into his eyes. “But now that I am her anchor and she dwells within me, you can touch her spirit through me just by touching your mouth to my mouth.”
He looked confused again. “You mean a kiss?”
She blinked as she recognized the word. “Yes, a kiss. You see, Sholleth is not like us, but she does understand us. She understands arms and mouths. Her link to me is in my mouth.”
The wizard’s eyes widened. “Hence the mask!”
“Yes!” She clasped her hands in excitement.
“So, just one kiss, and I’ll know immortality and the power of the stars?” He edged closer to her, his eyes searching the wooden shape of her mask, hungrily seeking out her mouth.
“Just one kiss.” She nodded and placed her hand on her mask. “Are you ready?”
He whispered, “Oh yes.”
“She will be so pleased.” Damaris leaned forward and removed her mask as a new flavor of hunger began to warm and thrill through her veins.
She couldn’t remember the last time she kissed a man. Or if she ever had. But she had the vague sense that it was something good. She hoped it would feel good.
As her lips parted, she felt the small red tendrils spill out of her mouth to writhe and dance and tickle against her cheeks and chin.
His face a pale rictus of terror, the wizard hurled himself back against the wall. A blue leather book appeared in his hand, already open to a certain page where the inked glyphs flared with arcane light. He shouted incomprehensible words as he slashed tortured gestures through the air.
She reached out for him—
The world exploded in light and thunder.
Damaris lost all sense of time and space.
When reality reasserted itself on her mind, she found herself lying on the cold sand covered in splinters and shattered boards. Sitting up, she discovered the bow and stern of her dunewreck remained intact but the center of the ancient ship had disintegrated into a heap of broken debris. Nothing but sticks and sawdust remained in the starlight.
Dizzily, she saw that both of her hands and arms had been flayed of their skin by the explosion of wood and sand. But the damage was superficial, and even as she looked at it, her flesh knitted itself back together again. On unsteady legs, Damaris hurried up onto the creaking remains of the dunewreck’s deck and gazed out across the desert.
She spotted the tiny black shape fleeing across the moonlit wastes, not too far, but already on the far side of the sandswirls and rapidly shrinking into the shadows, and any hope of pursuing him dwindled away. With shaking hands, she pulled her mask from the wreckage and placed it over her face. An exhausted tear fell from her eye as she whispered to the vast horrors and wonders of the universe, “Why did he do that?”