A lone, dark skeleton walked the Scald. The surface was made of standing waves the color of burnt cinnamon, cooked enough to stop from flowing, but not enough to blacken. The crust floated over an ocean of churning magma like a patella cut from its tendons. The skeleton thought it was supposed to have a name, or had once. It wondered how long it had been walking. Minutes? Millennia?
No. Not forever. It stopped its walking, and with hollow sockets it looked at its palms. Just bones, singed calcium like spent birch logs ready to crumble at the first provocation. The fingers clenched into fists, and then released. The skeleton sighed—an airless, lungless thing that only happened in its imagination, but was just as real as everything else—and then resumed its walking.
The walk was slow, a trudge, an eternal death march. The skeleton leaned ahead, each step a short and careful fall forward, but the Scald pushed back with its rotten, bellowing breath. It walked for a century or more, and then realized it was not merely walking, but searching. Searching for what? Again it examined its hands. They were gloved now. Bright gray against drab gray through the infrared optics. Commander Essex laid a hand on his shoulder from behind and squeezed. Keep ’em on the stick, she said. We’re not out of this yet. He whipped around, but she was gone. Only the Scald. He looked at his hands, but they were blackened bones once more. He was just the skeleton. In its skulking, shuffling way, the skeleton kept on, searching the Scald as it knew it must and not knowing if it might ever remember the object of its pursuit.
Time passed, and it walked lost in the empty thoughts of a blank mind until the Temple of Ash at Achernar appeared. This is it, said the skeleton, though it had no voice. It pressed against the heavy doors with charred hands and entered, ready to be filled with its purpose.