What I first had taken for wings were in fact jagged shards of obsidian, volcanic spears that hung together through some sort of arcane gravity. What I had thought to be flesh was sand, a dune’s worth, in constant living motion, like a waterfall of tiny grains held in a shape vaguely suggestive of a feminine form.

Perhaps more importantly, I had thought the crimson on its–her?–extremities to be gloves, shoes, blindfold. But they were no such thing. It was blood, warm and steaming, forming a sort of emulsion with the sand and providing the only hint that the hovering, quasi-angelic form was alive and not merely a sorcerous puppet.

“Can you speak?” I said.

“Yes.” The words were a desert wind, a blood-tinged whisper that howled.

“What are you, and why are you here?”

“What I am is not important. Why I am here is not important. What is important, rather, is what you are, and why you are here. Many have sought this place. Many have died here.”

“I am here,” I said, “because I wish to know the truth.”

“And are you willing to suffer for it? To die for it?”

A deep, racking exhale into the stale desert air. “I am.”

“Very well, then. Let us begin.”

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