Chapter 24: Starstrider’s Final Gambit
'Nothing is more dangerous to those who are thirsty than the mirage of water in the desert.' -Ziros Starstrider
Ziros suspected that what Rasha really sought was the location of the Star Crystal fields hidden in the Aymara Canyons. Inspired by the blinding desert sun, Ziros devised a bold ploy to lure Rasha away from the crystal-rich canyons. He had his metalmancers collect every scrap of metal that was not weapon or piece of armor, and forge them into crystalline shapes, imbuing them with a luminescent shine. He formed a squad of Orb Weavers who knew the location of every water mine in the Akram Desert, and he sent them to place the real crystals at the outer western edge of the Akram Desert while replicating the fake ones atop the deeper dunes one day’s march inside it.
At sunrise, three brave Scions from one of Vetruvia’s oldest clans, House Volari, agreed to a sacrificial mission to lure Rasha’s patrols to the edge of the Akram Desert before letting themselves be captured. The enemy patrol found the real crystals and saw the fake ones in the distance, gleaming in the morning sun. Even under Rasha’s horrific torture, the captured noble Scions swore those were the Star Crystal fields. Overwhelmed with his desire for the crystals, Rasha mockingly granted each Scion a dying wish before executing them, then marched his army through the night.
They arrived at Akram Desert, exhausted, just as the sun’s first golden rays lit up the crystals, both real and fake. Rasha again ordered his men ahead without pause. They lost hundreds to the heat. By nightfall it seemed the priceless crystal fields were almost within reach. But not quite. Even through his madness, Rasha knew his men needed rest. In the cloak of night, while Rasha’s exhausted army slept, Ziros’ squad moved and astral phased the fake crystals another day’s march east, deeper into the Akram Desert.
At dawn, Rasha insisted it must be a trick of the desert sun. He ordered his men to march yet again. That day the blistering heat took thousands. By nightfall, the Crystal Fields were still just out of reach and Rasha’s men were even more desperate for rest than the previous night. Once more, Ziros’ men moved the fake crystals, and in the morning, Rasha ordered his men even deeper into the desert.
By noon, when Ziros and his Dunecasters finally attacked, half the Aestaris were already dead; the rest driven mad with thirst. But not as mad as their Emperor, who fought on until the lifeblood of his last man drenched the sands and gave mute testimony to the Vetruvian’s vengeance. Ziros, still consumed with revenge, had his men build a monument where he fell — Rasha's Tomb — and buried Rasha and his men inside it, cursing them to burn for eternity in the scorching desert heat.