A cold, purple sky of silken clouds and opaline glitter stars canopied a small oasis isolated by an eternity of sand. Nowhere else in the whole of Vinaz-Utanzi would the Grand Sestal Serpent Izohyet rather have been in that moment. Nowhere else could he have been in that moment. With forced patience, he coiled around the shrine, anticipatory frissons wracking his elongate spine. A subdued but constant, crackling fire shined light where the beaming, ever watchful eye of the moon could not. It was a sound pleasant to his ears whereas the perseverant yipping of scavengerous jackals nearby was not. Izohyet hissed violently, an effort made vain by the golden harness restricting his muzzle. A pack of mangy, incursive villains encircled the sanctuary, yellow eyes ashine with moonlight, intent on an offering bowl upon the steps.
The brazen, sand-dusted alpha jackal pawed up to the offering bowl only to be reproached and admonished by Izohyets angered hissing. The pack traipsed around the shrine, testing it and its guardian, learning, considering, studying. Cunning as jackals are, they came to understand that no severe consequences would be visited upon them as the serpent was somehow hindered. When this realization was come upon, the emboldened jackals encroached onto the sacred place and crowded around the bowl, befouling it with their acrid saliva.
Izohyet hissed furiously, the golden covenant harness coming undone from his face and clattering upon the stone floor. Enraged at the slavering, canine vultures for their sacrilege, Izohyet disentangled himself from his coils and lunged forward, snaring the largest jackal. In moments, the beast was reduced to no more than a lump traveling languidly down a lengthy gullet tunnel to his unfortunate demise. Not wanting to meet a similar untoward fate, the still hungering jackals scampered off, their beshadowed silhouettes vanishing into the distant sands.
The distraction took Izohyets attention away from the eastern horizon to which all his awareness ought have been devoted. The night silence was downed out by far-off sounds of equine hooves pounding harshly upon a marbled path leading hitherto. His earlier anticipation conceded to shudders of dread; the covenant had fallen to the ground. Desperately, Izohyet pried his face into the tangle of gold. Again and again he found the covenant sliding off as a horse-driven carriage pounded closer. Each impending hoof-fall served as a painful reminder of past wars, bloodshed, needless violence, death; so many deaths, so many undeserved ill fates. Superstition, fear, and ignorance were the great drivers of holocaustic travesties in past times and Izohyet knew this with excruciating clarity.
The remembrance of blood, a rusty scent rising in unseen plumes to blot out the fragrance of peace drove Izohyets frenzied attempts to don the fallen covenant. The dunes would be littered with dead and dying, their blood-saturated bodies cringing under the merciless desert sun. Villages would burn, cities would topple, and the Iona-Myrna River would run red once again. The land would be reigned over by a fuming putrescent cloud of death-scent; washed up, dying and dead river-life, rotting, sun-baked bodies, lakes of blood, devouring fires that reduce all to cinders. It has been a thousand years, a long and peaceful thousand years since last the covenant fell.
Perhaps I could summon the Feyenine faeries again? he thought, almost immediately dismissing the idea. The Feyenine were temperamental creatures and re-summoning them, especially so soon, would come at a terrible cost. They would punish him severely for his transgression. And alas, even were that a solution, there was not enough time to summon them. Yet they were the only ones who could properly apply the harness for they were the ones who forged it; only they new its secrets. Izohyet gave a great sigh of frustration and in relinquishment, hid his head ashamedly, heart plummeting. Even as the hoof-beats stopped before the shrine, his head remained bowed and hidden. New sounds found their way to his ears; the faint plat-plat of sandals upon stone, a raspy hint of desert grit and sand grinding underfoot, uneasy breaths, whispers, and the tinny jangling of bells.
Hail Grand Sestal, The Serpent Izohyet, an unusually melodious voice cried, the musical words percussed by a steady beat of slow footfall.
Izohyet peeked surreptitiously from under his coils at a white-shrouded figure climbing the steps. A woman!? he thought, almost revealing his face as the reflex to look jolted him. Never in ten thousand years had they sent a woman. Most unusual.
Why do you hide your head, serpent? she asked, stepping before him. He knew that this mishap could not be hidden and solemnly raised his head, braced for the inevitable shrieking calamity. Her eyes met the unharnessed serpentine face then fell to the tangle of gold upon the stone floor. Do the Sestalornine Serpents wish to rekindle the old war? the woman demanded, her face unnervingly calm with only a faint tell of distress.
NO! Izohyet cried, his bell-like, telepathic howl shocking the woman and her companions lingering by the carriage. I, we do not desire to revive the time of blood. He wished only one thing in that moment; that his reptiline face could adequately convey his emotion and bestow tenability upon the words. Yet his hard, mirror scales remained immalleable, unmoving. He willed more words to come but they caught in his mind. A too long silence prevailed, only the impudent cicadas daring to trill their night sonata.
The woman stepped carefully through the maze of coils and crouched to retrieve the harness. It is just a symbol anyway, she spoke, it is the truth that matters. Why has the covenant come undone? How may I know that your words are true, that you do not wish to rekindle the old war?
Izohyet observed the creature before him, a tall, white silk-clad, bejeweled exemplar of human beauty. The womans beige skin shimmered like bronze under the moonlight. Her long, wavy, raven hair picked up purple tinges from the sky and gold from the fire. With enormous, moon-like eyes rimmed in black liner, she watched him calmly, eerily unblinking. Izohyet felt his head swimming with confusion, dizziness nearly overcoming him. Jackals blasphemed upon my temple. I punished them, he explained, his telepathic voice calm but cold. I transgressed. The covenant would not have fallen had I exercised restraint.
The womans eyes traveled to the jackal lump in the serpents belly. I see, she plainly said, clutching the harness to her breast. Her hand shook the covenant emphatically. This is only a sentiment. It has no power except what we imagine it to have. She tossed the covenant from the shrine, its golden chains jingling lightly as it soared. Izohyet jerked reflexively to see where upon the sand it fell. Do not fret, serpent. Let the treacherous Feynine have back their implement of devilry; it is not important. What is important is that we continue to have these understandings; that every hundred years you meet with us and we with you. Let symbols be symbolic and let truths be true.
Izohyet watched as a lingering jackal snatched up the covenant and scampered away with it clutched in his jaws. I do not think you should have done that, he warned.
Let the jackals have it, she replied. Perhaps they will find some way to make actual use of it. The woman seated herself amidst the maze of scaled coils and looked upon his face.
Izohyet lurched and tensed then relaxed, examining her more closely and casually. This is not the ritual; it is not how things are done. How has this come to be? It was my understanding that women are chattel, not fit to serve as ambassadors. I mean no disrespect, of course, but this is how it has always been among the humans. What has changed?
Many things have changed in the hundred years since you last saw us. No longer do we worship the old gods for they were cruel and petty. No longer do we prize war for it yields only death and misery. No longer do we cling to superstition. We aspire to greater knowledge and understanding. No longer do we lead out lives by blind stabs in the dark. These changes did not come about in the still of night; they have been many hundreds of years in the making.
Izohyet pondered this. I have seen traces of changes, but this is a tremendous leap from the past. You come to me this night with no man and no gods as your masters?
This is so, the woman spoke. My man is my companion and my equal. As for the gods, they may be ever watching, or they may be the bad dreams of frightened primitives; I do not know and I believe no one else does either.
Izohyet and the woman lingered in the shrine throughout the night, wholly enrapt by each other. Their conversation took many turns and never dulled. Only once were they interrupted. As the moon struck its high, their ears picked up the distant sound of yipping jackals, the beastly, primal cries echoing sharply across the dunes.
Somewhere in the distance, a jackal loped happily through the sand, a golden harness clasped tightly in his jaws. He crashed triumphantly into a rock-encircled clearing littered with his kin. The mourning of their fallen leader interrupted, they glared angrily, eyes filled with rage and sorrow. I am your new leader! the jackal cried, his voice brimming with audacity. I have stolen the golden harness from the Great Snake! Izooheets power to kill at whim is now mine! It was not long after this untimely announcement that the harness was stolen from him, his throat torn open. A great squall ensued, each jackal vying for the golden harness.
The riotous yowling grew so loud that Izohyet half thought to hunt them down and finish the rest of them off just for a moment of silence. Yet the woman consoled him, they are but dumb beasts. Let them have their beastly ways, it is all they are capable of, it is all they can know. Ignoring the raucous commotion, they continued their meeting.
Come morning, neither wished to leave. Yet as the sun rose, both were called to by their obligations. The woman rose, dusting sand from her white, silk dress. Let it not be a hundred years before we see each other next. Let us speak again soon. Let you perhaps someday live amongst us as kin.
Izohyet nodded fervently, agreeing to meet her again in seven days. He watched as the woman strode down the stairs past the offering bowl, its contents untouched. She climbed into a pearly, ornate, wooden carriage which turned and sped off down the marble path. Izohyet stared until it vanished, his heart sinking a little. He would have had no regrets had the night continued on for many more long hours. Yet the sun peeking over a far horizon of red hills reminded him that nothing lasts forever and few good things last half as long as we want them to.
A hundred years ago, he would have retreated with his shrine back to his own realm by this time. But in gleeful anticipation for the next meeting with his newfound companion, he chose stay. His body rose and he glided from the shrine, slithering through the air. Many desert denizens were perfectly shocked to see the Grand Sestal Serpent Izohyet performing extravagant loops and swirls in the air like an overjoyous bird. He swam over the dunes to the Iona-Myrna River, playfully swooping upon hares and ground squirrels. This wondrously giddy feeling had evaded him for so long,and such a marvel it was to embrace it once again. Izohyet spent the hottest hours of the day luxuriating in crystalline waters, waiting for the sun to reach the horizon before returning to his shrine. Upon returning, he discovered that his offering bowl had been blasphemed upon, a scent of jackals thick in the air, the shrine encircled by paw prints.
A hundred years later, there was no Izohyet. There were no humans. There was no shrine, no cities, and no villages; there was only nothing, less than nothing. A blanket of jackals prowled across the land like a tide. At the forefront of their formation strode a large, well fed alpha with a tangle of tarnished gold wrapped clumsily around his head.