Perfumed by an eerie rush of silence, the fabric of reality gave one last shiver before the world stopped dead in its tracks. At the heart of the desert, Time itself appeared to have parted from Space, placing every slave in sight in a state of suspended animation.
Divided about the place were slaves who neither blinked nor breathed. Beneath their empty eyes, their bodies had frozen into the frame of their last action: mud-bricks in the air, mud-bricks at their fingertips, soundless laughter etched onto their sunburnt faces. Time had halted, casting aside a vast sea of slaves, now nothing more than stock-still puppets.
Ashlar looked into the brown, unmoving eyes of Kunai un-Nefer.
He was a young lad indeed. No doubt, one of them middlings of lower social upbringing. Poor and dirty and of no real consequence to the waking wide world. Ashlar placed his hand over his bandaged chest. His heartbeat had ceased many a century back, yet there was still something – something strong, something alive – tucked away behind his putrefied sternum. His face cracked into another thin smile.
Yes, yes, still there, still safe. Still at hand. Kunai might have cleaned his wounds and applied fresh linen bandages. He might have searched him everywhere, as he inspected old wounds, but there was one place in his sickly, ever-dying body the lad had not bothered to look. For what madman would ever consider probing a man for his missing heart?
With time still standing still, Ashlar pushed his fingernails into his sternum. Like a stack of dry twigs, the ribcage gave in, granting access to the organs beneath. In place of a beating red heart, however, Ashlar found one of amber. It was short and jagged and cool to the touch. As he wrestled it out of his ribcage, the still air filled quickly with the light of ten sunsets.
Equal punishment, Ashlar reflected, perusing the toothed shard of effervescent metal he had just removed from his chest. It glowed in the ever-captivating, fluorescent orange light that announced the presence of Kaalà; of thought energy. There was a soft cracking of old bones as his broken ribcage rearranged around the gap in his breastbone.
Of course his immortal body would repair itself. It was, after all, the curse of his Binding. It wouldn’t matter the manner his form were destroyed. Karura’s malediction would always make sure his body remained in one piece. Ashlar pressed two fingers upon his absent heartbeat. Well, in one piece, more or less.
His bandaged hand gripped the shard of Æbe’trax, his expression set. All he needed now was the thought behind the intent; the feeling behind the urge. Æbe’trax was thought-made-flesh, the most hazardous metal in cosmic reality; a material so dangerous, a single ounce of it could collapse a whole city; a substance so potent, it could summon into being the most dominant thought in one’s awareness.
The crepuscular light protruded from his fist, casting slivers of orange across Kunai’s unmoving face.
‘Equal Punishment—’ Ashlar said aloud, lifting the glowing shard at eye-level. Kunai’s sooty cheek split down the middle. ‘—is suffering, for only in suffering are we all equal.’
To be continued...