Ad Infinitum
rating: +11+x

The sun shines upon arid ground, beams flitting through dust clouds kicked up by a horse-cart.

The cart rumbles along unkempt roads, approaching the walled city in the distance. Brambles encroach upon the dirt path, threatening to overtake it in some spots, and the road itself is walled in by Iberian oaks. The city itself, though still far away, looms at the center of your vision. Only the tallest spires — doubtless those of the largest basilicae, once known to dot the city, can be see above the hewn stone wall. You turn your attention to your pack. You know from experience that if one is to survive a long expedition, which this will doubtless be, one must be well prepared. You sort through the supplies in your pack: rope, climbing pitons, food, water, and an oil lamp. You remember the dagger tucked inside your bedroll. You hope you do not have to use it.

All at once, the cart comes to an abrupt stop. A gruff voice calls from the driver's seat.

"This is as far as the horses will go. They're pretty damn spooked already, and driving them further's just liable to rile 'em up. I guess this is your stop."

You say nothing in return, and step down onto the dry, packed earth.

"I reckon it's about a half-mile walk from here." The driver pauses for a moment, looking at the ground. "I… I doubt I'll be seeing you for a long while. Be safe."

You nod, and place two gold coins in the driver's outstretched hands. You pretend not to notice as you see him wince, in guilt or worry. No matter. The task at hand demands your attention.

The walk ahead is not a long one, but the sun beats down on you all the same, and by the time you reach the wall, sweat pours down your back and drips into your eyes. Despite your reservations, you take a swig of water from your canteen. You don't know when you'll be able to refill, but best not to get dehydrated in the first place. As you step into the shade of the wall, despite the heat in the sun, you feel a chill enter your body. It is normal to dread the task ahead, you think to yourself, but the feeling of apprehension only mounts further as you examine the wall. It is carved with sigils, perhaps wards of some kind, or hieroglyphic art. You do not know what the symbols mean, and move further on to a section of loosened brick, just loose enough to hold your pitons. You notch one into the wall and begin to climb.

Normally, climbs this high would be precarious, but the craftsmanship and density of the stone provides much in the way of safety. Not once were you ever concerned your holds would give way. In fact, the most difficult aspect of the climb presents itself halfway up - with the interlocking stone bricks so tight together, finding a place to hook your pitons is excceptionally difficult. Eventually you give up, and chisel out a hold yourself.

Hewn-stone streets snake beneath you. Beyond the decayed open-air markets along the main streets, blocks upon blocks of crumbling courtyarded residencies and porticos and tennant-housing tangle amid old walls and dry canals march to the flat horizon, the stagnant mass broken only by the occasional stout marble basilica inlaid with colorful yet dusty frescoes, testaments to both time and death. One commonality amongst all of them, you notice, is the dust. Every surface seems marred by the presence of the ochre-tan particulate, coating the seams between stones, the streets, the statues (god, there were a lot of statues), even the cupolas. It seems the massive walls trap even the dust of the city within - left to sit idle and accumulate with time. Despite the rumors of deadly creatures stalking the city, the dust looks entirely undisturbed.

An iron reinforcement makes itself available at the top of the wall, and you fasten your climbing rope to it in order to rappel down the side. It's a painless descent into the city, but as you descend, you make note of the drop in temperature. When you first hop down from the rope into the darkened streets - the sun hangs low enough in the sky so as to be blocked by the walls - your footfall sends a cloud of the mysterious dust spiraling through the air. Soon enough, you're coughing. The echoes of your coughing through the empty streets is unnerving, to say the least. In order to deal with the dust going forward, you rip a piece of fabric from your shirt and tie it around your face. This should do for now.

Carefully, you light your lamp, and continue along. Treading through the broken remains of a market, you find what appears to be produce coated in dust, spread along the stone road. Intrigued, you pick up a pear, only to have the fruit crumble in your palms as if scultped from a particularly weak alabaster. Perhaps these fruits were made as decoration for the market, you think to yourself, but remain unconvinced. You pull the faded paper map from your breast pocket and examine it, as the light within the city fades. You're on the east side of town - you know that much - and the sword you were contracted to recover lies in the central basilica. Not too far, all things considered, especially if you cut throught the market and some of the side streets. You chart the path you plan to follow on the map, fold it out, and tuck it back into your breast pocket. It's time to move.

Ducking into one of the side rows, alongside the market, you find that the walls of empty houses are in fact lined with wall-sized frescoes, seeming to depict a timeline of some sort. At first, brilliant yellows, blues, and greens illustrate rolling hills, each dusted with vegetables or grains, in some semblance of a pastoral paradise. Villagers worked the lands, pulling fresh produce from the hills, while the city, notably free of walls, prospered in the background. Further down the street, the next frescoe has a notable change of tone. Overlooking a quarry, men toil in removing marble, granite, and other stones from the earth, and dragging the blocks back to the city for processing. The blocks of stone seem to be immaculately carved stone themselves, inlaid on the fresco, and not simply painted on. In the next fresco, which you see after turning in towards the city center, depicts a sky tinged by smoke, fire, and ash. The sun is red behind the city, and fires burn across its breadth. The crops choke and wither on the hill, and the quarry has dug further than ever before into the earth. A view from inside one of the basilicae is next. Sickly red light streams in through stained glass windows coated in ash and dust, while holy men, engineers, and architects gather around a parchment. You lean in to take a closer look before -

You double over in a fit of coughing. Rapidly, you undo your makeshift dust mask just in time for you to cough up a small piece of stone. Doubtless you must have inhaled it on the climb up. It's happened before, after all. Best to keep moving.

The next frescoe depicts craftsmen of all types working on constructing the massive wall. Some lay dead, from exhaustion, overwork, or injury. Others haul away life-sized statues of the workers, arranging them along the far side of the wall. The piece is steeped in desparation and agony, but the work continues nonetheless. In the final fresco, the population of the city walks along a trail, in some kind of exodus. The fires have gone out, and the city lays still behind them. Smoke and dust still hang heavy in the air, and the statues of the workers stand sentinel along the wall.

You pull your eyes from the fresco, helped in part by the onset of another coughing fit, only to find that you are now looking down the road approaching the central basilica. The road itself is laid in precisely-cut stones and lined with many, many statues. On closer inspection, many of the statues seem to be of workers, craftsmen, and civilians, but some seem out of place. As you walk along the path, years of built up dust swirls around your feet and coats the statues nearby. Dust swirls into the folds of clothes, nooks of rucksacks, and pools in the throats of these statues as you walk by. Closer to the basilica, the carved statues command your attention further. This far in, the statues change. They now resemble doctors and medicine men, soldiers, drifters, even scavengers such as yourself. Wounds become apparent in their exposed flesh - a soldier stands at attention, despite deep scratches etched in his forearm, a doctor kneels, clutching at his own throat. The basilica draws closer. You notice a dagger clutched in the hands of the statue of a scavenger not unlike yourself. Unlike the previous statues, the dagger presented here was wood and stone, not alabaster and dust. You attempt to pry it from the grip of the gypsum imitation of a man, but it's gripped tightly. Eventually, you work it free, but not without slicing your hand open and breaking two of the fingers off of the statue. Your blood drips into the sand, quickly subsumed by the swirling dust.

The statues stop here, 40 paces from the entrance to the basilica. Quite abruptly, you note, as if someone just forgot to place more. The sight of so many statues, all still and silent, standing sentinel in a row disturbs you, and so you turn your attention once more to the chapel ahead. Your legs are leaden as you ascend the stairs, but you do so nonetheless, even despite a severe coughing fit halfway up the steps. You force more stone rubble from your throat, each shard scraping your windpipe raw. One even measures as long as your pinky finger, all jagged and bloody. Your mind races with the possibilities, but you manage to haul yourself to your feet and continue walking. After all, you're almost in. You know your prize awaits you within, and to return with an unfilled contract is as good as death itself. You drag yourself, unsteadily, through the vaulted entrance and beneath the cupola, where the last remnants of fading sunlight stream in. Illuminated upon the pulpit, a statue clutches the object you've been searching for. A sword, glinting in purest bronze, inlaid and engraved with golden leaves, just as described by your contract. You lurch forward to reach your prize, breaking it from the arm of the statue, and turn to leave, before you are felled by another coughing fit, even more violent than the last.

You fall to the floor, your body unable to stand against the ravages of your failing systems. You're facing the ceiling now, illuminated by the fading light. You hadn't really looked at the ceiling before - you were too preoccupied by your prize, but you now notice the inlaid patterns of glass and minerals upon the cupola. A mosaic, carefully crafted by experienced hands, lines the dome of the roof. You cough once more, feeling the breath fade from your body, but the mosaic captures your attention further.

An extravagant funeral procession ascends a hill to a graveyard, but the headstones are nonetheless weathered and worn. Wise men sit around a table, their somber expressions belying the difficulty of the problem they face. One holds what appears to be sand in his hands, grains trickling through his fingers as he speaks. A shadowed figure holds a sword aloft, gripping it by its blade, to a blue star above it. Blood pools in the figure's hands. Another procession this time, though instead of walking to the graveyard, the procession walks towards the quarry. The shadowed figure takes the lead, bloodied hand outstretched. Dust swirls around them both.

You look over the moasic, and then back to the dust held in suspension in the air. You look back to the statue from which you took the sword, only to realize it matched the shadowed figure exactly, down to the bloodied hand. You cough again. More stone this time, even more jagged. Hurt less coming up, though. You attempt to stand once more, but are unable to. Out of desperation, in imitation of the statue and mosaic, you draw the blade across your own hand, and offer it to the roiling swirls of dust. The motes coalesce along your arm - dancing along your flesh in the fading sunlight in a concerted yet frantic opera. They calm themselves and slide off your hand once more, leaving only alabaster globules where blood once flowed. You outstretch your hand, and the dust follows your motions, gusting further into the temple itself.

You rise once more to your feet, seemingly renewed and refreshed. Your lungs burn still, but with less pain than before, and your joints are more mobile than they once had been. Further into the basilica you tread, dust following your motions as if a lightless shadow. Your lighted shadow, this time cast by your oil lamp, projects along the hewn-stone wall as you walk further into the sanctum of the temple. Within, a round table sits, with the statues of the wise men depicted in the mosaics above positioned around it as if deep in discussion. At the center of their senate lies, seemingly, the model of the city, resplendant, carved of ornate marble and inlaid silver. You feel the weight of the sword in your hands, and at once know why you were contracted to retrieve it. As you outstretch your palm, and the dust covers the model city, you ponder the payment you were offered in return for the sword. As the dust falls away, leaving only sandstone behind in its place, you think perhaps the terms of the contract need renegotiation.

You look to the cracked and armless statue, laying broken in the foyer. Your predecessor had seemingly been too occupied by legacy, by immortality, and by permanence. He had let the power consume him, make him like the rest of them. You, you promise to yourself, would not repeat his mistakes.

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