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When the wise woman told Sandwalker Drai the tides were turning, she had been right.

Years prior to Drai’s birth, Re’Sheek had been cast into the Starpool, as I told you. Many, including Ra’Qara and Re’Gelrin, believed he had drowned. His followers retreated deep into the desert, and the war seemed to be won.

But with each passing year, it became clear that Re’Sheek’s spirit still walked the dunes. When the sandstorms were particularly fierce and our Sandwalker kin had to take cover in their yurts, it was said you could hear whispering on the wind. Nightmares visited the Sandwalkers in their sleep, promising power and glory if they were to seek out the One Sachem. Those who left in search of the answer to these riddles never returned.

The dreams came from Re’Sheek, of course, but how he had managed this new devilry was anyone’s guess. The Dreamingwind, as they called it, became more frequent, even going as far west as to begin harrying the People of the Stone in their solid abodes.

There was that wind again.

Azzir lay awake in his bunk. He was far from his comfortable bed in Isafa, where the majority of his family's holdings was concentrated. He missed the splendor. The cot he lay on smelled of the previous occupant, and the blankets were holey and stained with something he didn't want to identify. The innkeeper had grinned at him with a gap-toothed smile and wished him pleasant evening, but so far, the only pleasant part of Azzir's evening was his thoughts of home. The infernal wind wasn't helping his gloom.

That infernal had such an eerie sound to it, as if someone were sobbing. The Sandwalkers that came to town always waved their hands near their forehead as if warding something away when they heard it. Azzir didn’t understand it. The wind didn’t get up to the same speeds here as it did in the deep desert, and the moaning was probably just the air howling through the arches and alleys of the city. What were they so worried about?

"It's just silly Sandwalker superstition," Azzir's father would have grumbled, if he were here, his bristling eyebrows nearly hiding his squinty eyes from sight. "Don't listen to the nonsense, boy. They're just trying to scare you out of a few more coins for their charms and witchcraft."

"Just because the Sandwalkers are heathens does not make them thieves," would scold his mother. She was always hurrying in and out of the house on business, but somehow always managed to catch his father when he began on one of his long rants about the shortcomings of the other peoples.

Unperturbed, a eager young Azzir would then ask, "But it still makes them witches?" He had always wanted to see a real live witch, to see if they had hair sprouting from their faces like his friends claimed.

"We should show them Greatmother Qara's beneficience," his mother would answer crossly, turning to Azzir. "Go to the temple now, my son, and pray for the wisdom of living gods."

And so Azzir would go and pray, and return from the temple glowing with the glories of the church. But somehow he always felt like he was being punished by his mother, and he would return home to find neither of his parents seemed to remember the argument. After enough times of kneeling on the hard stone floor on the temple, making sense of moaning chants of the priests and harpy-like squalls of the choir, Azzir learned to stop asking about the Sandwalkers.

That had been years ago, when Azzir still had the idealism of youth. As he grew older, the world seemed to grow less colorful. Or perhaps it was too colorful: the stains of alcohol on the head priest's robes, though he tried to hide it with ever brighter dyes...the blood on the hands of the healer woman who couldn't save the baker's daughter...the powdered cheeks and painted eyes of the women on the street corner, which his mother would always huff at the sight of and hurry Azzir along before he could stop to say an admiring hello.

He was a son of House Telerine, and his parents would not let him forget it. But no matter the lessons in pensmanship, the drills with sword and spear, or the long temple services, they could not seem to impart the importance of honor to Azzir. He was more interested in the click of the dice and the bottom of a mug of ale, in smoking than leading the esteemed life of his warrior ancestors.

It had come to a head just weeks before tonight. His father had burst in on one of Azzir's smoking sessions in a rage. Azzir's friends were used to his father's temper, taking it in with the same placid cow-eyed look common to users of hinterweed. But this time was different. Even Rahai went scrabbling for the nearest window, abandoning to Azzir to his deserved fate.

His deserved fate, so proclaimed his father, was to get up off his worthless arse and go into the worthless world to obtain a worthless living, and not come back before he had done so. Azzir wasn't sure why he'd want a worthless living in the worthless world, but his mother had been in uncommon agreement with his father. Out the door he went the next day, without so much as a sand mask or a hinterweed pipe.

He had signed on to one of the caravans that passed through Isafa on their trade routes along the rim of the desert. He thought it would be an idyllic life, sitting on the back of a wagon watching the land pass by, and perhaps even indulging in an occassional smoke donated shared with him by the friendly caravan master.

The old adage of "too good to be true" struck again, however, and Azzir more often found himself pulling along with the yez to get the wagons out of sand drifts and yelling at the yapping coyotes skulking along the outskirts of the camp at night. It had come as a relief to reach town, even though the caravan master had him unload all of the sellable goods by himself. Later that evening, Azzir spent his wages on a couple of packets of hinterweed and had burned through half of it in the first hour. With a hazy contentment, he had walked into the first inn he had come to and collapsed in the common room. The innkeeper had taken the rest of his wages, but not wanting to upset such a placid customer, had thrown in a meal and several pints to boot.

Azzir had slept off the fumes well into the next day, waking up to the sound of his caravan wheeling out of town. The caravan master had refused to hire him back on, and Azzir had come crawling back to the inn at nightfall. The innkeeper had taken pity on him, and administered what he claimed was the only sure cure for a hungover head and a lost job: loads and loads of dishes to wash.

Though the treatment had convinced Azzir of the charity of innkeepers, it hadn't done much for his head. He had fallen into bed and laid awake for most of the night, listening to the howling wind.

Azzir closed his eyes. It was a bad job of it, and that was all. He would just have to accept it. After a few more tosses and turns, Azzir peeled himself out of bed and had a dunk in the scummy washbasin. Blearily smoothing his hair, walked out into the street. He was immediately greeted by a mouthful of sand.

The city of Sathay sat astride an old Sandwalker water well. Here, springs of past ages had carved many gullies into the rock, and the Ba'malra--or People of the Stone, as the Sandwalkers termed them--had built themselves a town in its maze. Streets in Sathay were narrow, and it wasn't uncommon to be able to walk with one hand on both walls. The streets collected sand like a miser collects coins, and like an ill-tempered miser, the wind seemed to take particular delight in throwing it in the faces of poor nobleman's sons.

Coughing and cursing, Azzir pushed himself off the wall and stumbled down the alley. He overturned a bucket or two, and nearly overturned a degonti who appeared suddenly in his path.

Azzir squinted at the degonti through sand-and-smoke bleary eyes, but couldn't tell much more about him besides he wore the patterned animal hides of a Sandwalker, and a mask over his face to protect against the swirling sand.

"What do you want?" Azzir asked. His throat still felt scratchy the night before's indulging.

"Degonti of the Stone," came the Sandwalker's voice haltingly, as if unsure of the language. "What village is this?"

“Sathay,” answered Azzir. “More of a city than a village, actually.”

“Sit-tee?” said the Sandwalker uncertainly.

Must be from the deep deep desert, thought Azzir. “City, that’s right. Never seen one before?”

The Sandwalker shook his head slowly. “My kin do not make city. Make villages of hide, not grass and rock.”

The Sandwalker’s way of talking was so strange that Azzir had a hard time following him. “Oh. Well, water well’s in the center. Just go down this road, turn left, then go straight. That’s what you’re looking for, isn’t it?”

The Sandwalker seemed to have a hard time deciphering Azzir's words too, and at length he shook his head. “Not here for water. Looking for degonti.”

“Plenty of that here, too."

The Sandwalker shook his head. "No. No, not want many degonti. Want one. Looking for one degonti." He shifted, his eyes nervously darting behind his sand mask.

"Does he have a name, this degonti of yours?" Azzir rubbed his eyes irritably. His head was beginning to ache again.

“I do not know.”

Azzir wondered if it was just the accent or if this Sandwalker really was a lack-wit. “That makes things hard, doesn’t it?”

The Sandwalker was quiet, and Azzir thought maybe he had offended him. He remembered back to his mother's stories about the magic of Sandwalkers, and decided maybe he should try to be more helpful. “Uh, maybe you can describe him for me? I’m new here, too, but I get around.”

“He wanders,” the Sandwalker said at length, “from stone to sand, but claims neither as home. His kin do not treat with him. He is despised by most, loved by few, but rewards well those who help him.”

“That’s...very poetic." The ache in his head was becoming a full-on throb, now. "Did you write that? Because I’m afraid it doesn’t narrow it down much. There’s lots of homeless degonti around here. Including me. And more in the other cities, like Muatha across the hills.”

The Sandwalker was quiet for a long time again. Azzir couldn’t tell what he was thinking--if he did think--under his patterned mask. “You are a Wanderer, yes?” he finally asked.

“A wanderer? Well, sure, I guess. I'm out to seek my fortune, you know." Azzir straightened up, but he knew he looked far from impressive.

The Sandwalker tilted his head slightly. “Yes, I know. You come with me?”

“With you?" Just what he needed, Azzir thought. A lack-wit Sandwalker companion, to go with the bad ale and the lack of hinterweed. "Why?”

“To—“ The Sandwalker struggled to find the right word. “To help To help us, yes, to help our people.”

"I'm good with people," Azzir said absently. "Talking to them, fighting with them, drinking with them--I mean, whatever you want to do. What DO you want me to do?"

“All will come clear,” murmured the Sandwalker, half to himself. The eyes behind the mask narrowed, scrutinizing Azzir. “If you wish it, I will—“ the Sandwalker paused again as he looked for the right words. “Buy you a round."

"You'll buy me a round? You mean a round of drinks?" Azzir said in disbelief.

The Sandwalker nodded, the eyes still narrow. "Yes. It is custom among People of the Stone, yes? Meet friend. Drink sour cactus. Tell story."

Azzir smirked sardonically. Well, he certainly wouldn't stop the Sandwalker if he were so eager to pay his tab. "Yes. That's our custom, you're right. The more rounds, the better, actually." He glanced back down the alleyway. If he played his cards right, maybe he wouldn't have to return to dish washing for that gap-toothed innkeeper. "In fact, I know just the place. Follow me. No, not that way. Behind you."

"I follow," said the Sandwalker, his voice soft and thoughtful. His calm was somehow unnerving.
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