Azir walked the gold-paved Emperor’s Way. The immense statues of Shurima’s earliest rulers – his ancestors – watched his progress.
The soft, shadowy light of predawn seeped through his city. The brightest stars still shone overhead, though they would soon be snuffed out by the rising sun. The night sky was not as Azir remembered it; the stars and the constellations were misaligned. Millennia had passed.
With every step, Azir’s heavy staff of office struck a lonely note, echoing through the capital’s empty streets.
When last he had walked this path, an honor guard of 10,000 elite warriors had marched in his wake, and the cheers of the crowd had shaken the city. It was to have been his moment of glory – yet it had been stolen from him.
Now, it was a city of ghosts. What had become of his people?
With an imperious gesture, Azir commanded the sands beside the roadway to rise, creating living statues. This was a vision of the past, the echoes of Shurima given form.
The sand figures looked forward, heads tilted toward the immense Sun Disk hanging above the Dais of Ascension half a league ahead. It hung there still, declaring the glory and power of Azir’s empire, though no one remained to see it. The daughter of Shurima who awakened him, she who bore his lineage, was gone. He sensed her out in the desert. Blood bound them together.
As Azir walked the Emperor’s Way, the sand-echoes of his people pointed up at the Sun Disk, their joyful expressions turning to horror. Mouths opened wide in silent screams. They turned to run, stumbling and falling. Azir watched this all in despairing silence, bearing witness to the last moments of his people.
They were obliterated by a wave of unseen energy, reduced to dust and cast to the winds. What had gone wrong with his Ascension to unleash this catastrophe?
Azir’s focus narrowed. His march became more resolute. He reached the base of the Stairs of Ascension and began to climb, taking them five at a time.
Only his most trusted soldiers, the priesthood, and those of the royal bloodline were allowed to step foot upon the Stairs. Sand versions of these most favored subjects lined his path, faces upturned, grimacing and wailing in silence before they too were swept away by the winds.
He ran, taking the steps faster than any man could, talons digging into the stonework, carving furrows where they caught. Sand figures rose, and were then destroyed, to either side of him as he climbed.
He reached the top. Here, he saw the final circle of onlookers: his closest aides, his advisers, the high priests. His family.
Azir dropped to his knees. His family was before him, rendered in perfect, heartbreaking detail. His wife, heavy with child. His shy daughter, clutching his wife’s hand. His son, standing tall, on the brink of becoming a man.
In horror, Azir saw their expressions change. Though he knew what was to come, he could not look away. His daughter hid her face in the folds of his wife’s dress; his son reached for his sword, shouting in defiance. His wife… her eyes widened, sorrow and despair writ within.
The unseen event blasted them to nothingness.
It was too much, but no tears welled in Azir’s eyes. His Ascended form rendered that simple act of grief forever lost to him. With a heavy heart, he pushed himself to his feet. The question remained as to how his bloodline survived, for it most assuredly had.
The final echo awaited.
He advanced, halting one step below the dais, and watched as it all played out before him, reenacted in the sand.
He saw himself, in his mortal form, rise up into the air beneath the Sun Disk, arms wide and back arched. He remembered this moment. The power coursed through him, infusing his being, filling him with its divine strength.
A newcomer formed in the sand. His trusted bondsman, his magus, Xerath.
His friend uttered a silent word. Azir watched himself shatter like glass, exploding into motes of sand.
“Xerath,” breathed Azir.
The traitor’s expression was unknowable, but Azir could see nothing but the face of a murderer.
Where did such hate come from? Azir had never been aware of it.
The sand image of Xerath rose higher into the air as the Sun Disk’s energies focused into his being. A cadre of elite guards rushed toward him, but they were all far too late.
A brutal shockwave of sand flared out, disintegrating the final moment of Shurima. Azir stood alone among the dying echoes of his past.
This is what killed his people.
Azir turned away, just as the first rays of the new dawn struck the Sun Disk overhead. He’d seen enough. The sand image of the transformed Xerath collapsed behind him.
The dawn sun reflected blindingly off Azir’s flawless golden armor. In that instant, he knew that the traitor still lived. He sensed the magus’s essence in the air that he breathed.
Azir lifted a hand, and an army of his elite warriors rose from the sands at the base of the Stairs of Ascension.
“Xerath,” he said, his voice tinged with rage. “Your crimes will not go unpunished.”