Returning to her most recent human form, Sable shivers despite the heat rolling from the sands. The proud Ivory Gate of Zerzura, carved from the tusks of some unfathomably tremendous beast and marked with intricate geometric designs that seem to rearrange themselves constantly before the eye, lies wide open. Her heart skips a beat and then sinks. Scanning the pristine guard towers, which stream with white pennants marked with a golden phoenix, she sees no one. Approaching slowly, she passes directly in view of the gatehouse, raising both hands above her head with her thumbs folded into her palms. The Guardians on duty should, hopefully, return her sign as a gesture of goodwill, but there is no movement.
As Sable strides down the main thoroughfare, a gleaming alabaster path lined with palm trees and flanked by pools the color of sapphires and lapis, her only companion is silence. Stalls full of trinkets, jewelry, expensive fabric and stacks of handmade books with lavish illustrations stand beside carts teeming with fruit and vegetables beginning to spoil. The boisterous crowds should be gathering for the morning rush, but everything is untended and deserted. Not even flies buzz on the rotten produce. Nothing breathes in all of Zerzura except Sable the outcast.
It is true that places in the Inside reality often shift without warning, but the Guardians assigned men and women to hold the city’s position. At all hours they sat on appointed street corners and dreamed, imagining Zerzura as it happened around them. When their shift was over, they rejoined the life of the city while someone else imagined them. Sometimes people disappeared when a dreamer lost concentration, but once these neighbors were remembered they reappeared without hesitation. If there was no one left here to remember, how would Zerzura return to life?
Quickening her step, Sable says a prayer that the heart of Zerzura remains untouched. At last she reaches the olive grove, growing near a splendid turquoise pond, and finds herself in the deep shade. Her dark eyes fill with tears, and the pale blue marks that the colonizer left on her face shine like beacons. What they had taken from her was far too much. At the center of the knot of trees, where the morning sun streams through the olive branches, is a stone stool reserved for the Chief Guardian, Vision, who has sat there since the beginning time, placing her imagination on things that range far from Zerzura. She is the Mother of all Guardians, including Sable. Today the sun reflects blindingly from the polished surface of the stool,which lies empty. The ground is torn. The Mother had sat here so long that she, like the olive trees themselves, had rooted into the ground. It had been a feat to remove her tremendous bulk without damaging the trees.
On the ground lies a small wicker basket painted with a large blue eye. Sable shudders, knowing that this has been left behind as a message. Filled with dread, she lifts the lid. A hooded face meets her gaze. Raising itself from the basket, the cobra weaves its head from side to side. She does the same, taking care to show no fear. She begins to sing, a low wordless song that undulates and draws the sun from the sky.
As night approaches, the snake speaks. “Woman child,” she whispers in a voice like the softest velvet, “we cannot hold ourselves here any longer. You must bring the Beloved key and restore us. Hurry. We are in a dark place and the little ones are frightened. Destroyers walk all paths and we are losing blood. Zerzura is unstable. There is a hole in the wall that grows and grows.”
“Where is Mother, serpent?”
“Lost, lost. They drugged us all and stole her while we slept. The water is tainted.”
“Who? The colonizers?”
“We never saw them. We do not know.”
“The Beloved is with the colonizer, the tall one that calls himself Veracity.”
The snake lets out a great hiss and spits into the air. Sable backs away, avoiding the cloud of dark poison. “Do not bring your lover here, woman child. Your Mother’s life depends on that. We fear treachery.”
The cobra slithers from the basket and into the earth. Sable crumples to the ground, spent.