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It is true; when Azzir first met Drai, he did not think much of him. What Azzir saw was a stranger: eccentric, slow-witted, and, dare it be said, someone he could take food from without being arrested for theft.

How much the both of them changed in the course of their adventure. Sometimes I look back on the memories I have of our elder warriors, even our sachem, of when they were children and how very different they were then. Life is a journey, so it is been said, and you never know where you will end up at the end of all things. Azzir knew nothing of his eventual fate, to be certain…


“Absolutely no one!” exclaimed Azzir, pulling off his boots and emptying their insides of sand. He pushed into the Sandwalker’s tent situated just outside the city. It was eerily quiet from inside.

“Drai? You in here?”

Drai was leaning over a set of runestones. They were the same shape and size as the runestones the Ba'malra used to gamble with, but the runes inscribed on them were different. Eyes and skulls and stars instead of sequences of dots.

“What in the Greatmother's name are you doing?”

Drai held up his hand for silence. As Azzir watched, the degonti picked up the runes, shook them, and threw them on the floor again. His shoulders slumped and Azzir decided it might be safe to talk, now.

“What was that?”

“Zmbah. Ask a question, and the spirits tell you with the runestones.”

“Oh. Fortune telling. I've seen that."

Drai paused before answering, as he was wont to do. His eyes were on the runestones. “Not quite," he finally said. He beckoned Azzir over, pointing to the runestones on the floor. One showed a skull, one a star, and two were blank. “The star can mean good fortune, and is often associated with our Wanderer.”

“Well, good," Azzir answered. "Then we won't have to waste more time on this wild goose chase of yours." Reminded that he was supposed to be huffy about the lack of progress on the Sandwalker's strange task, Azzir threw himself into the cot, resolving himself to be grumpy. But he found, as he kept glancing back at Drai's spirit dice, that he couldn't help but be a little intrigued.

Drai hummed and picked up the stones one by one. “If it were alone, perhaps. The skull is a bad sign."

"Well, whatever. It can't be any worse than hauling water for the militia all afternoon long. My back is killing me."

Drai raised his eyebrows, but only answered with a shrug, dropping his runestones into a beaded pouch. He murmured a prayer Azzir could only guess was for the spirits, then turned to face Azzir squarely. “You have found someone?”

"I found something, and that's even better," said Azzir with a sneer. Kicking back, he pulled a new pipe and a bundle of hinterweed from his pockets. "At least those spear-polishing bastards gave me enough money to buy this."

"Ah. Hinterweed?" said Drai with a look of interest.

"Get your own, bucko."

Drai's eyes glinted mysteriously. After the past three days living with the degonti, Azzir was ready to rip out the Sandwalker's myserious eyes and tie them around his neck.

"Hinterweed is special among my people," explained Drai. "It gives the makhani visions. Opens our senses to the spirit world."

"That's not the only thing it does." Azzir stuffed the bowl of the pipe full and lit it, taking a long appreciate huff. "Makes the world all rosy. Takes all your worries away. You should try it. Then you wouldn't have to worry about this silly Wanderer of yours." He cast a sneaky glance at his companion to see if the barb had hit home. As usual, Drai took it without complaint. Azzir felt oddly disappointed.

"What have you seen?" Drai asked.

"What, going to tell my fortune by my trips?" The hinterweed was beginning to work. Azzir hooded his eyes, suddenly not caring what nonsense the Sandwalker started spouting.

"I could," said Drai, in his innocent-that-was-a-little-too-innocent voice.

"Oh, go ahead," said Azzir, waving his hand. "Bespell me. Show me what you got, Sandwalker." Waving his hand amused him, and he did it some more with a giggle.

"The spirits accept you readily," observed Drai. Then his voice took an uncharacteristic turn for stern. "But you do it wrong. Sit up, degonti of the Stone. Face me. Your hands on my hands."

Azzir rolled his eyes and sat up, keeping the pipe clenched between his teeth. He waved his hands at the Sandwalker some more as if to dispell him, but Drai's serious expression dampened his giggles. "You are such a downer," he sneered at Drai around the pipe.

Drai took his hands with comment. "Breathe, in pattern. With me. Draw in the smoke, let it out through the nose. It needs to reach your head."

It took a few minutes before Azzir could do as Drai instructed without giggling. But as he calmed, the world seemed to broaden. He wouldn't have been able to describe it later; while he knew Drai was only sitting a few handspans away from him, the Sandwalker suddenly seemed across the world as well. Azzir let the smoke out, the misty swirls rising before his eyes and making them water. The heat of it seared into its nostrils and Azzir grimaced.

"Relax," said Drai before he could say anything else. "The pain is to let you know you still live. The spirits will not bother you."

"Nonsense," murmured Azzir, but he couldn't concentrate enough to finish the rest of the sentence. The little room of the yurt was changing. The shadows didn't move, but things seemed to detach from them, flashes of color and light. People wearing strange patterns on their clothing took form. They were all staring at him, staring at Drai, with dogged intensity.

"Who are they?" The smoke flurried from his mouth, obscuring his view of the people.

"Relax," came Drai's voice, as if he hadn't heard him.

The ghostly people continued to stare. One of them, a male degonti with an ill-favored look, took a step nearer to Drai. He stood over the unsuspecting Sandwalker, making gestures above the man's head that sent a chill through Azzir, though he had no clue what the gestures could mean. Degonti did not often use body language, the colors in their eyes sending enough signals. It was like watching a rabid animal writhing in madness. The shadowy figure ended by clenching his hands together as if closing them around a throat, and smiled at Azzir. His eyes were dark and sick.

Shuddering, Azzir focused back on Drai, who continued to watch him calmly, squeezing his hands every so often. Drai couldn't see the other people at all, Azzir realized. Above the Sandwalker's head, the bad degonti made another gesture, and Drai's eyes flashed with the same dark unholy light as the shadow's. Azzir cried out.

"Hush," said Drai, or it should have been Drai, but Azzir wasn't so sure the voice came from him. He opened his eyes wide, as another shadowy figure interposed itself between the gesturing man and the Sandwalker. The newcomer's clothing was outlandish, neither Ba'malra or Sandwalker garb, and his hair was cut in a fashion reminiscent of the faraway Brown Skins.

"Leave him be!" came the voice again, and Azzir saw it didn't belong to Drai, but to this newcomer. "He belongs only to himself." The gesturing man snarled, his eyes growing darker and more dangerous still, but he melted into the shadows, deeply enough Azzir couldn't pick him out again.

The newcomer turned around and his eyes smiled at Azzir, but then he, too, was gone in another cascade of color. Azzir twitched, and forgot the world existed.

*****

"You saw him. The one we search for."

Azzir opened his eyes to find himself back on Drai's cot. The pipe and the packet of hinterweed was lying neatly on the floor beside him. Drai was sitting there too, looking not the least bit worried that Azzir had had the worst trip of his life, Azzir thought.

"I don't know what in the hells I saw," snapped Azzir. "What was that? What did you do to me?"

"You saw into spirit world, so I assume. It is strange place." Drai picked up the pipe and the packet and tucked it away. "But runestones told me some of your journey. You saw the face of the one we search for. Will you tell me?"

"There was more than one," said Azzir. He sat up, feeling strangely more lucid than he ever had coming down off a high. He didn't want to tell Drai about what he saw just yet, though. It still disturbed him. "How do we even know this Wanderer IS one person? Seems to me these prophecy things are all so vague, they could fit any number of people. How many folks wear hoods for instance?" He pointed at the bead string hanging from Drai's sash, at the one depicting the hooded Wanderer.

"The stories always say there is but one Wanderer," said Drai sternly.

"You're crazy," Azzir murmured.

"You are not accustomed to the journeying." Drai closed his eyes. "I should not have sent you without more preparation. I am sorry. But I most know. This is important, Friend Azzir. I cannot tell you how important. Tell me who you saw."

"Why is it important?" Azzir heard his voice crack. "Seeing things, hearing voices...my mother would tear her hair if she knew what I was up to! She sent me away to stop me getting involved with the bad crowds, not meet you and...do things that are worse!"

Drai only stared and blinked at him. Azzir clenched his fists.

"Is that all you're going to do? Stare at me like a great dumb yez? Is there nothing I can say that'll offend you? Huh? What if I insulted your upbringing! Your father? Your clan, maybe?"

"You do not know what you say."

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard! Of course I know what I say! And what I say is blah blah blah you're a mulusdar with its horns through a tree, blah blah blah got that way by following the stars on the runestones--"

"You do not know what you say." Drai's eyes had shifted to a terrible red, the color of fresh blood. His fists clenched, but he did not move, his breathing didn't even change. Azzir couldn't help a bit of respect to creep into his regard of the man. A bit of respect, and a bit of fear. What was buried inside this degonti?

"I saw a degonti," Azzir admitted sourly. "He looked like he had come from the country of the Brown Skins. He had their hair and clothes. Okay?"

Drai blinked, then blinked again, and the second time he opened his eyes, the red had faded. "You said you had seen more than one person."

The breath caught in Azzir's throat. "I was mistaken." He looked away to hide his eyes, but Drai didn't seem to notice.

"An Easterner," Drai murmured. "Yes, of course, that would be why no one has found him before." He looked back to Azzir. "You have been very helpful. I will make garula mulusdar in thanks tonight, thanks to the spirits for what they have shown you. I would be very...honored if you were to eat with me."

"Don't say that," said Azzir under his breath, as Drai got to his feet and moved for the tent flap. In his mind's eye, Azzir could still imagine the shadowy figure making gestures over the Sandwalker's head. Dangerous gestures, evil gestures...

He had done nothing to stop them.

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March 2016

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