Dead Run by Icarus Graeme

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SUMMARY: A ruined city at the edge of the world; a broken man searching for redemption; a race against a thousand years of death

The first ancestor-golem hulked into the courtyard and the warrior Arkus found that he could not move. It was not fear, though his skin was both cold and sweaty and his heart had become a wild beast raging against the cage of his ribs. In truth, he had expected to be immobilized by his fear of the thing, but he found now, even though his awareness of it was subconscious, that his terror was dwarfed by the sudden and inexorable knowledge of his own insignificance.

The darkness came not from the blanket of night, but rather from a thin, greyish veil of ash that had been falling on the empty city of Cherog since the beginning of the world. As a boy, Arkus often wondered how such a thing was possible, how the city could avoid the consumption of a thousand years of sooty snow, but now, in his search of the broken arcades and colorless gardens, he had fled many times from strange, worm-like creatures that clearly fed on the choking stuff.

Even with the thick cloth he had pulled across his nose and mouth, Arkus could not breathe well and the failure of this life-giving function panicked him. The city was worse than even the most gifted of the nightmare-tellers had prophesied. Its buildings revealed no secrets concerning its founders or purpose. It existed at the edge of mortal knowledge, both of geography and myth, shrouded in ash, and though stories always spoke of it as some vast, silent bastion guarding the marches of the Desolate Kings, Arkus had learned that it was far from empty, or silent.

Scouring the city, trying to master his rising terror and searching for the purple flower that was his purpose, Arkus had seen creatures that seemed to be the embodiment of decay: gaunt, scabrous things that clung to the stones, as though feasting on the dereliction of the architecture. None of them could ignore a living, breathing man, however, and Arkus had been forced to move like a criminal. He moved slowly, though his shortening breath begged him to hurry, and he began to feel claustrophobic and trapped.

Despite this strain, he had persisted. He had systematically and carefully searched the avenues of Cherog until finally he had found the small garden where, once every twenty years, the purple flower called the kingsblood bloomed. As far as he had seen, nothing else in the city bore true, vibrant life and the existence of the flower was a piece of sacred lore for his people. He had heard a dozen stories explaining this bizarre lifecycle, but looking down on them, fearing for his life, he found that he didn't care where they came from, or why they never bloomed in the same place twice, or why they slumbered so long. Without pausing, he had knelt quickly and harvested the entire crop. Tradition urged him to take a single stem, but he was far beyond tradition and against the ancestor-golems, he needed any edge he could manufacture.

The golem in the courtyard was close enough to where Arkus stood that it was not obscured: a massive, unnatural likeness of a man formed of clay.

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