Oct. 25th, 2015

grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
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.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
Kevaar woke from a dream of darkness and laughing voices. Outside the sandstorm had started up again, and he had to take a moment to re-tuck the corners of the blanket he had thrown up to cover the entrance of his hideaway. The cave was cramped, barely big enough for him to stretch out in, and not big enough for himself and a campfire, but at least it kept the sand out.

Uncurling slowly so as not to jar his leg, Kevaar groped around until he found the hole in the ceiling that allowed him to sit upright. He unwrapped the bandages around his leg, and grimacing, poked and prodded at the contour of the broken bone to check how it was setting. It was lucky he had two legs, he thought, so he could compare which was more misshapen. His other leg, bruised but not broken, and swollen with the strain of having to carry all his weight. Kevaar didn't think it was possible to get an infection when he hadn't broken his skin, but that it would have been just his luck. He lay down again, this time on his belly, and fished for a biscuit from his pack.

Something had been rooting through it, he found immediately. Though the perpetrator was no longer around, the water-proofing paper around the food items had been skillfully nibbled back, and something had sampled the rations inside. Kevaar picked away at the bite marks, scattering them on the cave floor. He paused as something like eyes glittered at him from the depths of the cave.

Many animals had eyes that flashed when light shone into them, but very few had the eyes of a degonti, which glowed of their own accord. Kevaar could see the creature's outline--whatever it was, probably a rat--better than it could see his, thanks to his eyes, but it was a tradeoff. His old masters used to fret the glow would give them away on heists. Unfortunately, a degonti was useless if he couldn't see, so they kept him towards the back of the group and prayed no one looked in their direction too long and hard.

The rodent, judging by the trembling in its forepaws, probably could see him. It would be better to kill it, Kevaar thought, to save its meat and deter others of its kind for bothering him, but something in him gave way. It was the first living creature he had come across in the days he had spent out here, and for that he felt a kind of kinship to it. He plucked up some of the crumbs he had scattered earlier, and tossed it the rodent's way.

The nose wriggled, whiskers twitching. Kevaar hooded his eyes. Ever so slowly, the rodent crawled over, then quick as a bird, nipped up the crumbs and hurried away with them. So it was also desperate for food, Kevaar thought, and scattered a few more crumbs. Then he lay down again, thinking no more of it.

The sand hitting the blanket had almost the same soothing quality as listening to rain pelt the roof back home. Kevaar guessed he'd never hear the rain again. His eyes slipped shut slowly, and he sank back into dreams of darkness, that made him shudder, but he did not wake.

*****

Garula mulusdar turned out to be a Sandwalker recipe for mulusdar meat. Though it smelled delicious, the spices were overpowering and curled Azzir's tongue, and he was almost glad Drai insisted on leaving two portions for the spirits in thanks.

Drai was in high spirits, barely seeming to notice how Azzir fumbled through the ritual offerings. He shouldn't expect any self-respecting Ba'malra to be all that enthused with the proceedings anyway, Azzir thought. Ba'malra worshiped the Greatmother and Her Consort, as was right and proper, not their own dead. Yes, the Ba'malra respected their ancestors, but they didn't go leaving perfectly good meat in the fire until it began to burn. He began to think his father had been right about Sandwalker customs.

After the meal, Drai had stood and begun what Azzir could only term as dancing. He twirled and spun around the fire, stamping his feet. He didn't dance to any rhythm that Azzir could tell, and he found the waves of sand the Sandwalker kicked up rather irritating. The sun had gone down long ago, and Azzir retreated back into the tent to catch some winks.

"Wake, Friend Azzir!" Drai's voice pierced a particularly good dream he had been having about a Telerine Summer Feast. The Sandwalker's voice brimmed over with excitement, and his glowing eyes were not hard to spot with their brilliant sheen.

"What is it?" Azzir groaned.

"You have brought much luck," Drai informed him with satisfaction--rather smug satisfaction, Azzir thought. "I know our new heading. Friend Batalo from the city trades with me for yez, so we will go fast fast, across desert."

"Fast fast where?" Azzir sat up, rubbing his back.

"Desert. I know place. I know where to find Wanderer. Come! Must take down yurt. You get out, or be bundled with it."

Cursing the Sandwalker, but only under his breath, Azzir rolled the rest of the way out of his cot and onto the floor. He gathered a lump of his clothing out from under the excited Sandwalker and stepped outside. The sky was a deep purple with the coming dawn, glowing red and orange along the top of the eastern cliffs. The degonti was too sleepy to appreciate it however, putting most of his energy into stretching and debating if sleeping while standing upright was really possible.

The Sandwalker was quick about his business, and soon the tent was no more than a bunch sticks rolled in some hide, and Azzir wondered that it had ever been a tent at all. Drai dropped a few packs of supplies at his feet, and grudgingly, Azzir took him onto his shoulders. With some consternation, he realized Drai only had kept for himself one pack.

"What's that?" he asked rather pointedly.

"This one my compensation," said Drai smugly. The remaining bag looked too bulky to be carrying coins, and Azzir could only guess its contents were Drai’s payment for a yez. The Sandwalker looped the bag over one shoulder, slapped the sticks-and-tarp that was the tent onto the other shoulder, and took off at a fast pace. Azzir had a surprisingly hard time keeping up.

Drai threaded his way through Sathay's outskirts, picking his way across ditches and down alleyways. The Stone degonti were barely awake at this hour, and only a few beggars uncurled to fuzzily watch them pass. Finally the streets opened up again. A few Sandwalker tents, erected in the same style as the one on Drai’s shoulder, stood in stark relief to the flatness of the desert beyond.

The Sandwalkers were considerably more active at this time of day, and Azzir's nose twitched appreciatively at the smell of cooking breakfast. One of the Sandwalkers hailed them from his yurt's entrance and came out to greet them. He was built differently than Drai, Azzir noticed, his cheekbones higher and more pronounced, but he had the same weather-beaten look common to all Sandwalkers.

The two talked in low tones, then after much bowing and nodding, the other Sandwalker took Drai's burden, and disappeared with it around the back of his yurt. He returned shortly, leading along the great bronze hulk of a yez.

The yez startled when it saw Azzir, sitting back on its massive hind legs and shaking its frilled head in surprise. The Sandwalker scolded it, grabbing one of its short forward-facing tusks and pulling the scaled head down to the level he could rub the creature's beak soothingly. The yez seemed to like this, snorting and thumping its stubby tail. When Drai stepped closer, it snorted and brayed at him, but the other Sandwalker just laughed.

Not very well trained, Azzir thought, stiff with shock. But then, he was used to seeing the leaner, more agile yez the Ba'malra rode into battle with, not this great brute. It looked like it would be happy carrying a campful of Sandwalker tents on its back without effort. And perhaps, that was exactly its purpose.

"It will carry us both," Drai said when he noticed Azzir still standing apart. Thanking the other Sandwalker one last time, he began to secure his tent to the yez's saddle, and gestured Azzir to bring the other packs forward. "Get on, Friend Azzir. Balaro's yez are good breed. Lucky we, he stops in Sathay today."

This yez was a good deal taller than the yez Azzir had learned to ride on back home. And the saddle didn't even have any stirrups! Azzir was wondering how awkward he would look scrabbling up its side like it were a rock face, when Drai pulled the yez's head around. The Sandwalker stepped on the yez's tusk, and using it as a boost, pulled himself up behind the creature's frill.

"You come?" He looked down at Azzir impatiently.

Biting his lip, Azzir mimicked the Sandwalker's steps. He was unprepared for the yez to give him a boost of its own accord, nearly throwing him over its back with a toss of its head. Eyes yellow with humiliation, Azzir straightened himself, as the yez let out a deep throated clicking that sounded awfully like a chuckle.

"He likes you," said Drai.

"Lucky me," muttered Azzir. "The damn thing smells."
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
The Dreamingwind is an insidious thing, and that is why it is so dangerous. Sometimes it comes to us in our sleep, and we dream bad dreams of blood and darkness. Other times it comes to us in our waking thoughts, like a daydream. This is how the Demon Prince used to impart his will upon the degonti, to bring them under his rule. We have since learned other uses for the Dreamingwind, and so you needn't be so afraid when you hear it's howl. In Sandwalker Drai's time however, such techniques were unheard of. They relied on meditation and prayer, and the saints have mercy on those who found themselves praying to the wrong god by mistake...

The wind whistled and moaned, and the sand hissed as it blew up around Drai’s tent. This tent was tiny in comparison to the yurt he had shared with the makhani back at home, and he could barely stand up in it. But Drai was glad to have it despite the cramped quarters--made even more cramped with the addition of Friend Azzir, who was fast asleep. Drai had heard tales of sandstorms flaying the skin from the bones of unfortunate degonti of the Stone caught too far from their cities without shelter. He would rather not learn what that felt like.

Besides the sounds of the storm, it was very quiet inside. The Stone degonti was curled up against one wall, seemingly oblivious to the sounds of the storm. Had Azzir ever been this far out in the desert? Drai wondered. He wondered too, at the sense of bringing him along. The Ba'malra was like a strutting young mulusdar, challenging the elder bucks with his tiny horns, seeming oblivious to the damage they could inflict on his hide if they truly cared to fight him.

But there was something else about the young degonti that Drai liked. A kind of spirit, and Drai knew that so long as he survived his first dry seasons, the rash young buck would grow up into a great big mulusdar with his magnificent rack. It wasn't a given. The coyote and the sandcat were always watching. When the wind roared particularly loudly, Drai doubted the young buck would survive.

The wind howled. Like an itch in his side, Drai wondered why the spirits had seen fit to speak to Azzir and not himself. The makhani had always taught him that the spirits moved in mysterious ways. Even the ignorant degonti of the Stone had an important part to play in the turning of the winds. But if this greedy and arrogant degonti was anything like the rest of his kind, Drai was glad he didn't understand the Ba'malra language better. He didn't want to learn anything more about the grasping race who had pushed his people into the worst parts of the desert.

Drai closed his eyes. There were a lot of reasons to detest them.

The wind made an about-face, and the tent walls shuddered under its force. The dream-catchers in the rafters shook and tinkled, and Drai glanced up at them with sudden fear. Across from him, Azzir moaned and began to shift in his sleep.

I could just kill him now, Drai thought. No one would know. He has no family, no friends. Then I could go home...

The wind shrieked, and somewhere in the distance a brother gale moaned through the rocks of the far away cliff face. Drai shook himself, the hair standing up on the back of his neck. What had he been thinking? Murder? This was no ordinary storm, to put such thoughts in his head.

Drai stood up, pacing the floor of the tent and reciting the Seven Sermons to keep his mind off whatever Re'Sheek was trying to slip into his conscious. The wind blew louder and louder.

"Is this your ploy?" Drai tore his thoughts from the Sermons, accusing the wind. "Drown out my soul with your noise and frightful rumor? It won't work, Re'Sheek! I won't surrender!"

The dream-catchers seemed to be moving of their own accord now. They hadn't worked on his father, Drai remembered. The makhani had hung the dream-catchers all over his yurt and fixed him valerian cordials to help him sleep, but still he had listened to the voices. He had betrayed them all...

"I'm not him!" Drai shouted. "Leave me alone! I'm not my father!"

He wasn't strong enough. His soul was tainted with the madness, his blood diluted with his father's weakness. The others all stayed away from him for that reason. It wasn't his weak breath, his shaven head. He was alone from his own inner failings, would always be--

"Go sleep," groaned Azzir suddenly from his corner, and Drai realized he must have woken him with his shout. "By the Greatmother, why're you awake?"

The words were hard to decipher, but at the moment, the language didn't matter. Drai collapsed with a groan, simply grateful for the presence of another living thing. Azzir's eyes blinked at him inquisitively out of the dark, and the violet glow of his irritation was somehow more inviting than a hundred green smiles of his tribe.

The wind tore angrily at the outsides of the yurt, but it knew the prey had slipped its jaws.

"Sleep, Friend Azzir," said Drai hoarsely, switching to the language of the Ba'malra. The words felt solid and clunky on his tongue. "It is only storm. I guard your rest."

"Whatever," Azzir muttered, and turned over again.

Maybe he wasn't here to teach the young mulusdar how to grow up, Drai reflected as he listened to the degonti snore. Maybe the young buck is here to bestow on me his strength.

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