Kajh Devoni slumps in the shadow of the Eastern Steppes. A cracked and sandy ruin is all that remains of the former capital of the New Mongol Empire. The parched basins where fountains used to sing, the bent and shattered onion domes, and the dusky side streets populated by the occasional black-eyed orphan all reek with an ancient stench of neglect. The casual traveler would never suspect that this twice-great citadel’s roots stretch all the way back to the glory days of the Old Mongol Empire, that after the First Disaster, the already age-old settlement was even briefly elevated to the seat of the New Empire, before slinking back into a long evening of disrepair following the Second of the great catastrophes. But Kajh Devoni does not receive casual travelers. Now only the winds blowing from the bare plains of the Eastern Steppes are left to chip away at the remaining edifices and the few extant inhabitants lurk in narrow doorways, their beady eyes shifting from dust plume to dervish, dimly aware of their former greatness and forever mute and broken.
I ride into the nearly abandoned metropolis through a gap in one of the once formidable walls. The sky is still stained with the pink glow of dawn. I slide to the ground and precede through the deserted streets, leading my mount, Mishka, behind me. We idle along crumbling promenades and quest down close sandstone passages for hours, like the awed pilgrims of old. The tiles of crumbling mosaics gleam gold and bloodshot as they catch the glare of the rising sun.
Legend has it that a secret is buried under Kajh Devoni. A secret stored away eons ago before the twin demons that men termed Disasters came and wrought their havoc on the world. A secret so secret and buried so deep that no one remembers exactly what it was and no one has come to search for it in all this time. Of course Kajh Devoni is not an easy place to find. The Eastern Steppes are an inhospitable country and far, far away from anything that could be termed civilization. A scattered few, predominately herders and horsemen, the descendants of the lordly Mongol rulers, still eke out a living on these arid plains but their numbers dwindle every winter. Winter is very cold on the Eastern Steppes and I am just as glad autumn lasts for another few short months.
A jerky motion draws my gaze as a child, blue-black hair streaming in the breeze, scurries off down an alleyway like a rat or a cockroach, eager to avoid the sunlight. Long ago, when the nights turned cool and the winds howled above the city ramparts, the children of Kajh Devoni would gather near the fire pits to hear the Olden Folk tell improbable yarns and myths. I can still recall the tales from when I was young—The Parable of the Whirling Dervish, The Adventures of the Horse’s Wife, How Issii the Magician Swept the Snow Off the Steppes, Why the Singer of Silver Went North, and my very favorite, The Fallen Apsara. All were old fables from before the Two Disasters. Some even dated from before the creation of the Old Mongol Empire, much less the New Dynasties. I don’t imagine there are any Olden Folk left in Kajh Devoni to tell tales to children by the fire at night.
We meander further into what once was the heart of the Blazing City. A painting on the side of a nearby building depicts two priests of Middle Devoni piling flowers on the shrine of the First Disaster. A New Mongol Princeling graces the opposite wall, hands raised in adoration. Whatever he praised collapsed many years ago with the masonry along the ruddy wall’s edge. All the stone in Kajh Devoni is pink or red—hence the old name for the place, the Blazing City. The breeze teases a wisp of dark hair from the bun on my neck. I pause to readjust it and a thin smile skips across my mouth, disappearing on the next gust. I taste the gritty wind and laugh. We are getting closer.
Mishka snorts and steers her head away from a leaning pylon. Dervishes, Steppe Devils, and Apsaras—the ghost fairies with clouds instead of legs, who were said to dance on the rising winds at first light and sunset, decorate the roseate pillar. It was told, in those ancient legends by the evening fire, that a master storyteller once trapped an Apsara who fell to earth by binding her soul into a tightly woven fable. To escape back to her sisters in the heavens she must regain it, but can only do so if she steals the tale that the old storyteller imprisoned it in. Of course she will never be free, for once a story is told it becomes the property of all who hear and repeat it and thus becomes impossible to steal as long as anyone still tells it.
Ultimately our wanderings find us in a shaded backstreet. A street urchin, no more than fifteen years old but small and slight of build, crouches near its mouth, narrow eyes pinched tight against the omnipresent dust. My glance flits ahead to a darkened aperture at the end of the alley. It looms. Waiting. I turn to the urchin, whom I now see is female.
“Will you watch my horse for a little while?” I ask her. “I will be back,” I pause, unsure how long it will take, “when I am back.” I reach into the embroidered pouch at my waist and hold up a single golden coin. The girl’s eyes flash with growing interest.
“I’ll pay you for your trouble—if you’re both still here when I come back.” I take the child’s intent silence as affirmation and gently release Mishka’s bridle. Neither will be going anywhere soon; Mishka would wait for me until the end of time and the girl has nowhere to go. Kajh Devoni rarely lets its people leave.
The decrepit doorframe seems to shutter as I pass through the dim opening. It is a sideway into one of the many temples that used to dot the cityscape. Today most of the others are merely glorified heaps of rubble. Inside, a corridor leads to a large, empty chamber. A gilded dais shrouded by moth-eaten silks stands against the far wall. Behind the curtained altar is a set of winding stairs, circling downwards. I am likely the only living individual, besides possibly a few senile old monks, who knows where they lead.
As I descend, the desiccated sewers of the city give way to aqueducts run dry, which in turn give way to grimy catacombs where the occasional dusty skull still lies as it was cast aside in bygone days. The air is cooler below the city.
Eventually I come across a stone door bound with stiff metallic strips. I stoop low to read the carving on the vault’s entrance. A careful shove starts it opening inward. Clouds of displaced earth billow up in my face and I turn my head away to let them clear before entering. A hum starts and a florescent glow begins to glimmer on above my head. The first bright light I have seen in hours sends me cringing back against the door. As my eyes adjust to the glare, I run them over the walls of the room. It is not a very large space but every side is studded with tiny holes, several inches deep. Cylindrical tubes fill each of the thousands of miniature channels. There is no directory but it only takes seconds for my fingers to locate the right one in the ancient library. It has sat here a very long time, preserved with its fellow volumes, each carefully recorded on incalculably thin silicon wires and stored away in crystalline pipes, through the millennia, through both Disasters, through cavernous stretches of time, through the rise and fall of empires and peoples, through so many years of searching and wandering and enduring the harsh, cold world.
A cry halts my steps as I emerge once more into the main temple hall. An old monastic, frayed carnelian robe testifying to his age, half kneels, half stands in front of the dais, right hand lifted as if to ward off some archaic evil. A sword hangs limply in his left but I can tell that it has not been sharpened for years. His squinting eyes reflect fear and fatigued exhaustion. Then something else. Almost amusement. I watch as he scans the title on the side of my transparent treasure: Legends of the Eastern Steppes.
“You took a book of children’s stories?” His look shifts to one of confusion.
“I’m not a looter,” I call down to him as I raise the crystal cylinder over my head, “this belongs to me. I lost it. Long ago.” Somewhere deep down in his weary mind I believe he realizes that—dimly realizes but does not quite remember why. He holds his pose for a few seconds more, his eyes boring into mine, then relaxes to let me pass. I hear him slump to the floor behind me with a quiet sigh.
The girl is still there when I step back outside. Midday has turned to twilight and the sky glows faintly lavender and rosy where the sun has dropped beneath the horizon. Mishka turns her head and paws the earth upon my reappearance. I nod once to the child, toss her the coin, and start to lead Mishka away down the street. Then I pause. Turn. I do not need a stead to travel anymore.
“Here, she’s yours.” I whisper to the girl, handing her the horse’s bridle. “There’s a whole world out beyond those broken walls.” As I stride into the gathering dusk my fading voice echoes back, “Take it by storm.”
All the dark-eyed little girl sees as I start to turn the corner is a misty figure melting little by little into the evening. Higher and higher, the sunset wind spirals over the Eastern Steppes and up, up, up into the domed expanse of the overcast heavens, still barely illuminated by the last light of day, a final peal of laughter is freed forever on the breeze.
Image Source: “sunrise on the snowy steps of mongolia” Ludovic Hirlimann https://www.flickr.com/photos/lhirlimann/