"Is that it?" Azzir hissed. They had traveled for several days through featureless desert, the landscape only broken here and there by a rising dune or an outcropping of rock. Now they huddled just under the crest of one such dune, squinting down at the landscape below. The moon was dim, and the dunes looked like the blue folds of a bedsheet, stained by something darker in their rumpled center.
Drai didn't answer Azzir for a long time. He had been chewing on a stick of hinterweed thoughtfully for the past hour. Azzir was annoyed. The Sandwalker impressed on Azzir that he wasn't to use the hinterweed within days travel of Shuluk Kar, but clearly the warning didn't apply to himself.
Suddenly Drai's eyes flared and he spat out the stick. "Yes," he said. "That is Shuluk Kar."
"Let's get closer," said Azzir, and he wriggled over the crest of the dune and down it. The night was very quiet; no wind was blowing. But as they drew closer to the bantam grove, he heard a high whistling, like grass stems rubbing together.
"Friend Azzir must be careful," said Drai. His voice was thick, perhaps with fear, or perhaps he got a mouthful of sand, Azzir thought.
"It's just folktales!" Azzir snapped, more to reassure himself than to convince Drai.
The blot on the landscape had grown and taken form. Yucca rose against the dark sky like thin fingers. One began swaying in an ecstasy of convulsion, and Azzir stopped short. Drai bumped into him. Slowly, the branches turned to their customary stillness, and both relaxed.
"Just an animal," said Azzir, and he didn't bother raising his voice for Drai this time.
Bantam was a strange name for the groves, Azzir thought as he walked further in. Yucca grew around the dwellings of his people sometimes, but these were the biggest yucca he had ever seen. They rose over his head by several arm lengths, the masses of spikes on the end of each branch spreading more than three handspans each. "Nothing small about it at all," Azzir mumbled as he stopped to examine the bark of one.
"They are called bantam for that they are smaller than forest." Azzir jumped as Drai loomed up beside him.
In his surprise, Azzir forgot to snap at him. "What is a forest?"
"Groves like these that go for miles. Brownskins have them. I have never seen one." Drai gingerly reached out to touch the bark of the yucca. "There is much life here."
"Well, I haven't seen any sign of your Lurid, or your heshti. Nothing out here to be afraid of at all, in fact!" Azzir laughed, but it sounded thin and echoed back to him eerily. He snapped his teeth together in chagrin.
In reply, Drai snapped off a piece of the yucca's bark and held it up to the moonlight. Azzir shivered, for something crawling on it, a beetle or a centipede.
"Someone ought to cut that thing down," he muttered. "It's infested!"
"No," said Drai. "Creatures live in these like you live in stone. They are not heshti, though they gather where heshti have been."
"Is there one nearby now?" Azzir asked. "A heshti?"
Drai was silent for a long time, turning his head this way and that. "Shuluk Kar not growing much this time of year. Heshti have no bodies to steal. You cannot hear them, Friend Azzir?"
Azzir swallowed a lump in his throat, and stood still. The soft whistling had become a constant buzzing, rising and falling without rhythm. "That...noise? That's them?"
"If you had hinterweed, you would see them. Be glad. They are terrible!"
Drai spoke no more, but turned for a clearing in the grove, carefully placing his mocassins on the sand so that he made no sound. Azzir followed, and waited until they were a fair distance from the leaning yucca before speaking. He was feeling much better now that he was away from the humming.
"Is that what I'm supposed to fight? Buzzing things I can't see? Huh, it's quieter here, isn't it?"
Drai didn't answer, digging his hand deep into the sand. The sand swiftly filled in the hole he dug, but soon Drai struck wet sand, and his hands came up glistening with moisture. "Lurid is in all things, Azzir. Like this water. When it leaves a place, it takes its sickness with it, but it takes something else, too. Something vital."
Azzir sat down beside him. "Okay. That's a neat trick. I've seen others get water out of oases like that before."
Drai pressed down in the sand until water filled the hole. "Re'Sheek knows this about Lurid, but he gathers the power to him without heed for consequences. He is bitter, angry at gods. They drove him from paradise when he was just a spirit, and he wants revenge."
"I thought Re'Sheek had been mortal once. Like the Greatmother, only...bad."
Drai stared at Azzir steadily. "That is what I try to say, you do not see? All is bad. All is good. Greatmother, Re'Sheek, the Lurid. Cycle of spirits and life and changing into the other. When you fight Re'Sheek, you must also fight you."
The buzzing from the yucca got louder. Azzir sat upright, looking about anxiously. "Drai," he suddenly asked. "You don't think those buzzy spirits could possess us, do you? Turn us into heshti?"
Drai continued eying him. "You understand now?"
"You mean they could?" Azzir's voice crawled up an octave. "Then why under the burning sun are we just sitting here? Like dumb yez!"
Drai eye's glinted. "Is good practice, like Friend Azzir wanted."
"Drai, I have no idea where to even begin. Even with ones as weak as these are!"
Drai's eyes abruptly darkened and he sat back. "Then perhaps you are not Wanderer."
"I am too! The prophecy fits! Or well enough. But what you're asking is...is...for someone who's a mystical shaman sort! I'm just a nobleman's son. I can put a sword through a chest, but not through thin air!"
Drai suddenly seized Azzir's hand and gripped it tight. "I did not want to put you in this state. But if you are Wanderer, you must act. You must understand!"
"Stop! What are you--"
In one quick movement, Drai pulled his knife and slashed Azzir up the arm, from wrist to elbow. Azzir cried out and tried to pull away, but Drai had clamped down like a vise. Mulching something from his pouch, he pressed it in the wound.
The world flipped over. Azzir could no longer see the other degonti. Or rather, he could no longer make out Drai's face. A shadow had come between them. Other shadows flickered about in the darkn. The buzzing grew to a loud hissing, and then to what almost seemed words.
Azzir stared around him. There were creatures in the yucca, but some didn't seem like animals, or at least, not entirely. Some were monstrous, with tentacles and sores covering their hide. Others looked much too intelligent to be a mere animal, like a cross between a degonti and some other creature. Still others sprouted what looked like broad-bladed yucca spikes from their manes and tails, their faces made of bundles of artfully arranged sticks instead of flesh.
Drai's voice came to him, though it was distant, like from across a canyon. And though he did not notice it then, Azzir remembered later that Drai's harsh accent was no longer discernable. "Your enemy does not all have the same face, Ba'malra. The Wanderer must choose which is it. Your champion is not who you'd expect. If you want to succeed, you must solve this puzzle."
The shadowy creatures began to crawl towards them some gibbering in delight, others halting, cautious and curious.
"You mean some of these aren't Lurid monsters?" he asked Drai.
"All of them are, but some are not sick with it," answered Drai.
"Bloody unhelpful," muttered Azzir. He stood, and was glad to find he could keep his balance just fine. The heshti spirits jumped back at his approach, babbling in alarm.
Azzir mopped his hair back from his forehead. "Yes, well, if I am going to get used to fighting heshti, then I should start now." He examined the heshti, most of which were already beginning to lose interest and retreat back to the yucca. He picked out a particularly slimy looking one, a wolf with a spray of vine-like appendages coming from its shoulders.
"You, then," said Azzir. "You are one disgusting beast. I'll start with putting you down."
He lunged for it, pulling his sword from his waist. The wolf's tentacles flared in a halo around its head, then shot forward, grasping Azzir. The vines burned! The wolf sprung at him, knocking him over, hot breath on his skin.
Choking, Azzir thrust his blade at it wildly. He could dimly hear Drai in the background, chanting or shouting something. The wolf heshti's snapped together inches from his face, as one of its vines wrapped around his throat. The world darkened, and Azzir lost grip of his sword.
"Drai, help me!"
The shadowy world turned brown and green. He was sinking beneath dirt, the wet clumping sort of dirt that farmers liked to use in their gardens. Everything smelled of spice and rot, but it wasn't an offensive odor, instead tangy and warm. Above him, far away, was the blue of the sky and the waving of something, not quite like yucca, but taller and greener.
"Kashablak!" came a strangely accented voice. "This one's my friend. Leave him alone!"
The vine around his neck eased, and Azzir thrashed his way out of returning darkness. His bleeding arm was burning, but his breath felt clearer. He opened his eyes to see the fat moon overhead, shining on empty sand. The bantam grove and the creatures were nowhere to be seen.
Drai stood up from where he had been leaning over a fire. The flames were quite large, and Azzir wondered how long he had been out cold. "That was very foolish, Degonti of the Stone," Drai scolded, kneeling besides him. "You could have been killed, or turned. Never rush into battle with heshti. Not for any reason!"
"I have to learn how to fight them," said Azzir groggily. "You said yourself these were the weak ones."
"It was foolish!" snapped Drai, and pointed down at Azzir's wrist. Like seedlings, a row of tiny green leaves had sprouted along the closed wound on Azzir's arm.
"I'll pull them out. It's not that bad." But Azzir's voice was shaking. He looked up at Drai apologetically. "I don't feel any different at all. Am I?"
Drai relented and handed Azzir a knife. "No. You were but close. Heshti don't kill with teeth and blades, Friend Azzir. They join, and you forget who you are."
Azzir ripped the seedlings out, taking a layer of dead skin with them. He felt no pain, and was reassured when bright red blood welled up in the tiny holes left behind. "By Her Consort, this isn't natural!"
Drai snorted sardonically. "That is the unbalance. Plants growing on things before they are full dead. Beasts mixing with those not their kind. The more Re'Sheek uses Lurid, the more we see it. These bantam groves are worst, for they have much life to twist."
"Your prophecies," said Azzir. "Maybe we're just rushing into this too quickly, like you said. We have to stop and think and follow your prophecies."
"Young mulusdar learns from his scars," said Drai with a chuckle. He blinked thoughtfully. "The Wanderer chooses the way. Perhaps means you must figure it out yourself."
Azzir groaned. "I have chosen. I choose that heshti are nasty little buggers and need to be culled. But I don't know how. You're a Sandwalker. You deal with these things all the time in the deep desert. How do your people kill them?"
"We kill them, but they return. You cannot use my way, Friend Azzir; they will only come back. As Wanderer, you must find way that ends heshti for good." Drai went silent again, thoughtful. "The next part in prophecy goes, 'the Wanderer goads the kings to fight'. Some say he finds certain champion to fight for him, a seed of Re'Vekraa."
"I think I've had enough of seeds," said Azzir, picking at his arm again.
Drai gazed at him with sympathy. "Like Lurid, heshti can be both bad and good, Degonti of the Stone. But the Wanderer must choose. You must learn to be discerning."
"Right now, I choose to sleep," grumbled Azzir. "I would choose also to drown myself in the smoke of hinterweed, but I know you won't allow it. Look, we can figure this out in the morning." He turned over, pounding the sand into a softer pillow. "Goad kings! I don't know any kings. Unless you count aristocrats like my father, and they fight among themselves enough as it is!"
"You are good at goading," murmured Drai, but Azzir slipped into sleep too fast to reply to the sarcastic remark.