grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2016-03-21 01:42 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Eleven

There was nothing but the pain now. The thirst in his throat had faded, then the aches of body. His leg burned, and Kevaar slipped in and out of unconsciousness.

Voices spoke around him, and he would sometimes come flailing awake to find he was alone. Except for the small rodent. The more violently he thrashed, the more worried it looked, until Kevaar thought he must have chased it away...

******

"It is ill," I said, trying to puturgency in my words. Across from me, Deritakt only rolled his great golden eyes, and whuffed a breath over me that smelled of dreamflowers.

"You've been dipping with the humans," I snarled in sudden anger. "Clouding your mind with their weed! But you won't let me help this degonti I found out in the desert? They're almost the same species!"

"Humans and degonti are only animals, Kemekien," said the old khurarl with a sigh. He scratched his cheek languidly with his thumb talon. "You have to let nature take its course. You wouldn't want to upset the Balance now, would you?"

"Spirits hang the Balance!" I snapped, but I wondered again why this had me so upset in the first place. It was hard sometimes to tell that the creature I had found was even in pain. Degonti were not like the humans--the brownskins as they call them, whose expressions bloomed on their faces at the slightest complaint or joy--but they were not as inexpressive as us khurarl either. Like the degonti, we had not evolved to be social creatures.

That's what the Elders would say at any rate, whenever they argued for not getting involved in the affairs of the outside world. We hadn't evolved for it. We weren't meant to. I always wondered then how the elders would explain how the khurarl had taken to living in such large colonies, if we weren't meant to help each other out.

"It's just one degonti," I said, dragging my mind back to the argument. "No worse than those felines Rositarien has been trying to domesticate. And they're a whole lot smarter, too."

"Kemekien, you drive me to distraction!" grumbled Deritakt, and he rose from his place and hid his head in his wings, pretending to preen their insides. He continued, gesturing to me with a flap of his wing's phalanges. "But if you insist, then by all means, bring the creature here. But you are responsible to its grooming and feeding and cleaning up its leavings, and good luck if it manages to escape!"

"Oh, it won't be that hard," I said. "Degonti are smarter than you think."

"Yuvain said that about coyotes too, and look at what happened to him."

"Well, maybe if he hadn't turned himself into a mulusdar right outside their den, he'd still have all his limbs!" I snapped. "Look, I'll be careful, Deritakt. I won't even show it my true form. I'll just be a...a yez or something. Or one of it's own kind. It should respond well to that."

"The degonti are dangerous in more ways than just their physical makeup," Deritakt explained impatiently. "I should not say this, but the Elders are getting increasingly concerned with them. They think we would drive them from the desert."

"Cull an entire species?" I asked, aghast. So much for not messing with the Balance. "Why?"

"Because of what they stir up, the powers they meddle in. Rot has crept back into the bantam groves and Old Tyr believes these degonti are somehow responsible. You bring one back here, and who knows what will happen."

"Then I won't bring it back here," I said. "I'll just heal it, and then return it to its own kind. Surely that's nothing terrible?"

Deritakt grumbled and rolled back and forth. His scales made an awful screeching noise against the rock of his lair. I knew he was just doing it for show, and had already made up his mind long ago. I lashed my tail in impatience, but forced a human-like grin on my snout.

"Fine!" Deritakt finally snapped in climax. He threw his wings in the air, looking ever so much as a human throwing up his arms in disgust. "Drag it out by its ruff and fix its owie-boo-boo's. Just don't blame me if trouble comes from it."

"Oh, I won't," I said, bouncing on my feet now that I had something to do. "You won't even notice I did anything, uncle. I'll be back before dark!"

"Yes, well, we'll see," said Deritakt, bringing up his long neck, crest puffing out as he watched me launch from the hill, spreading my wings. "Youngsters get into so much trouble they don't even know when they're out of it."

***

Light fell across his head, and he heard the rumblings of a deep voice, like out of a dream. The Other had been speaking before, but quickly hushed with a scream of agony and rage.

Or perhaps the scream was his own? Kevaar felt himself dragged and lifted, and the pain seared all reason from his mind. Wind roared in his ears, and when he woke up again, he was far away from the little hole in the rock he had climbed into.

He was far away from anything he recognized.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2016-03-21 10:59 am

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Ten

"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.

"Drai, stop!"

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.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2016-01-07 10:13 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Nine

Ever since turning to the worship of the Greatmother and her Consort, the degonti of the Stone have been unappreciative of the toils of the Sandwalkers. For then, as now, we have been the tenders of the desert, not only reading the portents of the winds, but also ushering in the seasons through careful maintenance of the bantam groves. It seems strange to us, being so much a part of the cycle now, but degonti of Kevaar's time did not fully understand the magic of these groves or the waters that fueled them.

After all, how could they? Under the harsh heat and the light of the sun, nothing rots. The spirits have nothing to cling to. Those that endured the dryness were powerful sorts, powerful enough to frighten, and dangerous to the unschooled regardless.


"It means me," Azzir announced one day.

Drai turned his head halfway, regarding him out if the corner of his eye.

He could be more excited, Azzir thought. But he was too excited himself at the thought to take offense for long. "The prophecies. The Wanderer. It's me. I am the outcasted son of a Ba'malra. It all fits."

Drai didn't answer. Such an infuriating travel companion, Azzir thought.

"You've done it," Azzir said to mollify the man. "You fond me like you were supposed to do. And I, i must do...whatever it was the Wanderer was supposed to do. It's my destiny!"

To his credit, Drai didn't snort, though his eyes glinted with soft amusement. "Yes," he finally said.

Azzir felt another flash of annoyance from Drai's lack of reaction. "Well, you're the one who knows the prophecies. What's the next step? How am I to defeat this Re'Sheek? Wait a minute, do you think that really means I am the reincarnate of--"

"The next step is to not speak so plainly," Drai said firmly. "The desert has ears."

"And eyes, and a mouth, I suppose," muttered Azzir, but he relented into a softer voice. "How am I supposed to defeat Him?"

Drai again was silent for a very long time. Azzir was beginning to consider prodding him in the back when the Sandwalker began to speak, voice barely above a whisper. "Tula'hara ama isia roth. Hara'l'non, ai isa tu'un. They say the way has dust in the wind. A saying among my people to mean harsh and unclear. New growth made and destroyed in an instant. But I am uncertain..."

"New growth?" commented Azzir. "That is a rather odd thing to say, isn't it? New growth of what, exactly?"

"Perhaps it means the Lurid. The transformations of those--it is terrible to speak."

"Oh, please. Heshti are the things of every children's story. The old pilgrim tricked by the wolf heshti. The king betrayed and poisoned by the sidewinder heshti. Eat your vegetables or the sand cat heshti will get you."

Drai's backwards glance was severe. "Re'Sheek's followers may be stories to you, degonti of the Stone, but to my people they are much real."

Azzir was taken aback, not even feeling driven to laugh at the bad grammar. "Sorry," he finally said. "It's just that I've never seen an actual heshti before. You know, fur and teeth and everything. How am I supposed to kill something if I don't know what it even looks like?"

"You will learn," Drai said, but it was in an offhandedly manner, the degonti's mind clearly somewhere else by the dark look in his eye. "I could take you. Take you, yes, to Shuluk Kar. You learn their looks, you learn fight them."

"What is Shuluk Kar?"

"Bantam grove. When wet season rains start, Shuluk Kar forms in desert. Very green, very wet, very magical. Place where heshti dwell."

"It's not the wet season. And I thought the groves were all just a myth, even to your people. I mean think, about it, whole great stands of giant yucca plants springing out from nowhere in the middle of the sand. It's all pretty fantastical, don't you think?"

"No one sees it, it is true. No one knows why oasis form, either. Only know that heshti come from swift new growth, heralded by the rains. Animals flee, water turns rancid; we starve, we sicken. We fight, drive heshti away, and desert returns to normal. That is cycle. Cycle you peoples of the Stone know nothing about, sheltered as you are."

Azzir growled, "I really hate to burst your bubble, but we don't even have a sword or anything to fight them, Drai. You and I are about as 'sheltered' as the Ba'malra you demarcate can get."

"No need for sword," muttered Drai. His eyes were still far away; he had apparently missed Azzir's sarcasm. "Shuluk Kar heshti very weak now. It is difficult to say in your language. Unjoined. Their souls...still apart. They attack the spirit not the body. No grip on the land without the rain, you see."

"That sounds even worse," said Azzir. "I have to fight something that doesn't even exist?"

"Not know this word, exist. But Azzir is not to worry. Unjoined heshti not bad, not enough to harm wise degonti." Odd, Azzir thought, that Drai's voice sounded more bitter than reassuring. "But you not smoke hinterweed when we come closer. Very important."

"Lay off the hinterweed!" Exclaimed Azzir, and then gave a sigh that could only be described as dramatic and long suffering. "I suppose I have to give up a few creature comforts if I'm to be this Wanderer hero."

"Indeed," said Drai good-naturedly, but his eyes only darkened more.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-31 10:36 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Eight

In the tales, Kevaar's origins were somewhat of a mystery. We know he came from the land of the Brown Skins, a race far to the East. I have never been there myself, but I'm told the plant life is magnificent in its abundance. Picture entire swathes of land covered in the bright green of aloe vera! Imagine not having to worry of thirst wherever you go! Truly, these people seemed to have a ken with the land far beyond our own.

As perhaps could be expected, there were mixed feelings between Brown Skins and degonti. The races are close enough to coexist, but not enough, perhaps, to fully understand one another. Some stories about Kevaar the Just do not mention his lovers among them, believing it to be a scandal. I don't care which you believe, but tell you this because it is the truth, and Saint Kevaar's tale is nothing if not a lesson on the burdens of truth.


Kevaar swallowed slowly, his mouth feeling like it was full of cloth. His sweat dried rapidly, leaving cold patches on his back and shoulders, but it was welcome relief to the heat. The sun beat down on him from above, stinging his eyes when he looked to the east, but he barely noticed, lost in thought.

The cliff face he had found in the blind sandstorm was apparently not the same one he had climbed down from out of the prairie. These ones rose to the same towering height over the flat red desert, only to fall again, and rise again, and on and on, like the wrinkles in bedsheets as far as Kevaar could strain his eyes. It would be beautiful, if it weren't so damn inconvenient, he thought.

Kevaar slid back down the rock face, grimacing as he jarred his leg, and took up refuge in a shady crack between two boulders. He had climbed up here before the sun had risen, thinking to get a look around. What might have been a five-minute hike had turned into an hours long toil. He had almost given up a few times, faced by a rock slide or a boulder in his path that might've taken him only a few seconds to scrabble over if he had been well.

He wasn't so sure it had been worth it in the end. Either his race were much deeper in the desert than the tales said, or they were remarkably good at hiding their dwellings. It was too early yet to spot smoke from cook fires spiraling up into the sky, and he planned to wait until nightfall when they or the fires that started them might be more visible. He didn't have much else to do.

He shifted in place, trying to get his throbbing leg into a better position. The area around the break was swelling up, and he hoped that was part of the normal healing process. Kevaar wasn't sure what he'd do if he were to get an infection.

Die, probably. Sighing, Kevaar closed his eyes, shifting again until he was in a position moderately conducive to sleep.

*****

"I had something I wanted to tell you."

"What is it that could possibly make up for what you've done?"

"I know. I know. It's just...I'm sorry."

"You lie. You're trying to trick me."

"My Re..."

"Enough. I'm asleep."

"...rai..."

"I'm dreaming..."

He lay beside her, her scent in his nostrils. She pressed against him, fingers drawing lazy lines down his cheeks.

There was something he should be remembering right now, something important, about her. But she took his head and drew it down to her chest, whispering little platitudes. A loving gesture, but a provoctive one... An aversion prickled in his gut, but he could think of nothing else he wanted at that moment except her, so didn't say a word.

Someone was watching--a disapproving guardian perhaps? Kevaar's neck prickled, and he disentangled himself from Leanqa. She seemed to fall away from him, a watery cold filling the space her warm body had been. If he hadn't been aware before this was a dream, he knew now. The bed seemed to disappear out from under him, leaving only darkness. Shivering, Kevaar quested for the eyes he still felt upon him.

It was human, or humanoid. It's face was covered with a hood, but it drew it back to reveal long plaited hair falling on either side of a stern man's face.

Kevaar gasped, almost waking up. The face was that of a degonti! Normally something he only saw when looking in a mirror, or when the traders made the long detour through his hometown...He could feel the press of rocks against his back as he rose towards waking, but the dream still clung doggedly on.

"I am disappointed in you, my Re," said the degonti. In the certainty of dreams, Kevaar knew the man was speaking another language, but he could understand it perfectly.

In the logic of dreams, too, Kevaar thought he was talking about Leanqa, and the bitter heartbreak their liaison had turned into. "I loved her," he told the dream degonti stubbornly. "You've got no right to judge."

"I never thought I'd hear those words from your mouth," replied the Other, and he looked faintly puzzled. "But you know me. And you will know more. I give this to you, my old clan brother. May it bring you the resolve you will need."

"Resolve for what?" Kevaar asked. The sense of ill ease increased, but the Other seemed to not hear him. "Hey! Listen to me! What is going on?"

The Other waved his hand, as if casting a spell. Kevaar felt arms encircle him from behind, Leanqa's voice calling him back.

"I'm sorry..." He couldn't tell if it was the Other who spoke, or Leanqa. He turned to his old lover, who smiled the special smile as only she could. He drew her closer.

"You must remember," murmured the Other, as his visage faded out of sight.

Something pricked him in the side, and Kevaar looked down to find Leanqa pressing a dagger under his ribs. Her smile had turned into a smirk, and her eyes were cold. Memories flooded back in, and Kevaar screamed.

He remembered nothing else about the dream. When he woke, the horror swiftly faded. Like déjà vu, he could be certain that it was nothing more than a dream, but deeper, he knew something had changed. Something was wrong.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-25 11:31 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Seven

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.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-25 10:22 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Six

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)
2015-10-25 12:34 am

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Five

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)
2015-10-24 11:31 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Four

The Ba'malra in those days were far from welcoming. While they considered the stories of Re’Sheek fairy tales fit only for frightening children into obeying their parents, they distrusted strangers with a fervor bordering on superstition. Those who came in from out of the desert, or those who had no family or House name, were especially distrusted.

One minute the sky had been clear, and the next minute, there was nothing but stinging darkness.

Kevaar dared not open his eyes. He had attempted it once, a few minutes into the sand storm, only for his eyes to smart so badly with the sand that he was afraid he'd never see again. He had ducked to the ground, rubbing fiercely, and tears were pouring down his cheeks before the pain lessened enough for him to continue.

The cliffs were nearby. All he had to do was find them, and take cover under one of the outcroppings. Surely the storm wouldn't take long to pass. Just like the rain storms back home, it would blow itself out in a matter of minutes, right?

He picked a direction and began walking in it. Seconds stretched into minutes, and minutes seemed to lengthen to hours. Surely he hadn't been that far from the cliffs in the first place? Kevaar felt a pit in his stomach. Or maybe he had simply chosen the wrong direction.

Scolding himself for his stupidity, Kevaar turned around and started back in the opposite direction. Or he thought it was the opposite direction. He couldn't see, and the rose-colored plain had been absolutely flat. For all he knew he was miles from the edge of the desert--

His outstretched hand met rock, and Kevaar gasped in relief. He collapsed on it, hugging it like it was the Holy Mother. But the jutting boulder didn't protect him from the sand. Leaning against it, Kevaar inched his way around it. It wasn't a large rock, only the width of two or three degonti and a few handspans higher than himself. He made his way around it twice, feeling it out, and by then had lost all sense of direction. He didn't know where he had first touched the rock, or even where the rock was in relation to...well, anything else in this blasted desert.

Trying to ignore the increasing raw feelings of his exposed skin, Kevaar thought back to that sweeping view of the desert he had taken from the grasslands. He hadn't remembered any standing stone out in the middle of the sand, but then, he could be miles from where he had first climbed down the cliffs. Still, it didn't seem like too outrageous a bet that he was only a stone's throw away from the cliffs.

The cliffs, and potential shelter.

Kevaar sat down and began feeling around with his feet, thinking he would be a merry show to watch if the sand hadn't been blocking anyone's view of his antics. Then again, if the sand wasn't blocking an onlooker's view, it wouldn't be blocking his, either.

He went around the rock once, patting and stretching, only to feel nothing else close by but more sand. Then daring, he lay down. The sand seemed to take it as invitation to march right down his mouth without even needing the wind to carry it, but he buried his nose in his shirt collar and hissed his breath past clenched teeth. He rolled about the rock, using the full length of his body...nothing, nothing, then...yes! Another solid object!

Pressing his feet against the other stone's reassuring solidarity, Kevaar sat up and crawled to it. This rock turned out to be a wall, and Kevaar hoped beyond hope he had found the cliff face. Now all he would have to do was walk beside it, until it dipped into a cave or other kind of overhanging, and then he could wait at the sandstorm in blessed shelter.

Taking long strides, Kevaar gratefully followed the contour of the cliff. His over eager steps drove his toes into a rock, and he pitched over face first. He threw his hands up to protect his face when he hit the ground.

But he didn't hit anything, except more air. Kevaar screamed as he fell. He swallowed sand, choked, and so heard clearly the crack of his own bones as he hit the bottom of the gully.

He couldn't scream anymore, or he'd swallow more sand and suffocate. Instead he pummeled the ground with his fists, screaming from behind clenched teeth. The stinging sand on his bare skin was a pleasant tickle compared to fire in his leg.

*****

It seemed days before the sandstorm finally died down. He had sipped water and nibbled on a traveling biscuit from his pack, but it didn't stop the pain, and with every mouthful he swore he swallowed a little bit of the omnipresent sand, too.

Kevaar woke up without remembering that he had been asleep. Propping himself up on his elbows sent a shower of sand cascading off his shoulders. His legs were still buried, which Kevaar thought just as well, as he didn't want to look at the carnage of his broken leg. A sad little bush, half-buried like he was, stood a few handspans away. Kevaar was able to pull himself into a sitting position with its help, until the branch snapped off in his hand.

It wasn't as bad as it could have been, Kevaar reflected. He was at the bottom of a gully, but not one with steep sides, so he could probably crawl his way out. The sun was far to the east, promising plenty of hours of daylight. It was cool down in the gully, the stones still chilled from the long desert night. No creepy crawlies had come to rest inside his warm clothing, and with the exception of the bush, there were no other signs of life. It was unlikely he'd have to deal with any aggressive scavengers.

It was unlikely he'd have to deal with any friendly scavengers, either. Kevaar hadn't brought a map, and even if he had, it was no good to him now, blown off course as much as he was. (He took a moment to be amused with the thought he might have literally blown off course, in that gale!) He amusement didn't last long. He was stranded, in a desert, with a broken leg. He had water and food enough for a few weeks--he wasn't that stupid, to come unprepared--but he wasn't sure a few weeks would matter if he couldn't budge himself a few miles--perhaps a few hundred miles--in the direction of civilization.

"So what are you going to do, hmm? Sit down here and wallow in the misery of your plight? That won't do. Simply unhelpful!"

Grunting, Kevaar dragged himself along on his elbows, picking his way up the gulley. He squinted as he pulled himself over the top and into broad daylight, and had to stop and let his eyes adjust before he could see around.

Flat desert in one direction, cliffs in another. A maze of gullies and old waterways in yet another. Well, at least he might not crave for water. Panting from exertion, Kevaar laid his cheek to the cool sand, closing his eyes. If there was water, there might also be plants he could eat. If there was water, there might be critters of the meaty kind he could trap. He brought snares. He even knew how to use them. Yes, he wouldn't lack for food or water, just so long as he could get his leg to heal properly. Then after months of roughing it in the wild, he could be on his way. He could imagine the gasp of the appreciative audience as he told about his fight against the elements, using only his wits and courage...

His audience...the pursuers behind him. Kevaar's eyes popped open, and he scanned the horizons nervously. Nothing. But you never knew. They might be sitting in one of those shadows, watching him writhe...he had to get away from this place!

With a gasp of pain, Kevaar pushed himself back up into a sitting position and looked down at his legs. Well, one definitely wasn't at the angle it should be. The other just looked bruised. If he could just bend the other one back into place, and find something to bind it with...

"No good, no good," Kevaar gasped as he tried pulling his shin back into alignment. "Oh, gods, no good!" He almost gave into despair then, but he remembered the woman's sneer, as she tugged the dagger from his hands...

"No, I won't go back!" Kevaar snapped defiantly at the cliffs, and was rewarded with the faint echoes of his own voice. He would surely hear anyone who was trying to sneak up on him with the acoustics of this place. But he still had to find that water. And to do so, he had to bind his leg.

Yelling curses at all the gods he ever knew, Kevaar grabbed the two bone halves and wrenched them back into place. He roared blasphemy at all the saints as he snapped a branch from the obliging bush and bound it tightly in place against his shin. Then he cursed and screamed some more, until his throat felt raw, and the pain wasn't quite so fiery.

He wasn't going to be able to walk. But hopping along might prove to be a little more productive than crawling. Either way, it made him feel more like a man and less like a rat being upright. Kevaar rolled to the cliff face and pulled himself up along it, then hobbled the slow, painful hobble, down to the network of ditches that might hold his water hole.

Up above, a dark form shifted, watching the degonti until he climbed down out of sight into the first gully.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-24 10:31 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Three

The degonti of the Stone have a very strange way of bartering. Every item, whether it’s a tent or a spear or a bundle of hinterweed, is assigned a value. Instead of trading the actual items for each other, a degonti of the Stone trades small pieces of metal that represent that assigned value. The metal is of no practical use unless you were to melt it down and forge it into spearheads, but doing so would make the degonti of the Stone very mad, which why it is best to just store the chits or throw them away. I remember Tiichi poking holes through each of his coins and stringing them up in his tent. While the degonti of the Stone frowned at this, they were still accepted as currency, and they did make such a lovely tinkling noise in the wind.

The Sandwalker didn’t have any currency accepted by the tavern. Azzir didn’t have the heart to tell him that degonti of the Stone didn’t exchange drinks for cured hides, so he bought the drinks himself, promising another night of dishwashing in return.

At least he’s familiar with alcohol, Azzir thought gloomily, watching the Sandwalker sampling the local brew. While most Sandwalkers seemed to grow their hair as long as possible, this one's head was shaved clean. His grey scalp shone in the light of the tavern’s fireplace.

“I am sorry,” the Sandwalker said at length, setting his mug down. “For the bad bartering. I do not know your customs.”

“The Julakhan’s customs, you mean.”

The Sandwalker cocked his head, so Azzir elaborated.

“Julakhan. This land's held by House Julakhan. I don’t come from here, you see, so they aren’t exactly my customs. I'm a son of House Telerine.”

"You are of the clan Telerine?" The Sandwalker looked faintly disappointed. "So you know your parents."

"Of course. Don't you?"

The Sandwalker remained silent. Azzir again wondered if he had offended the degonti, or if he was just slow on the uptake. The Sandwalker closed his eyes, so even the faint glow of his irises couldn't give Azzir a clue as to what he was thinking.

"I am called Drai. My clan and kin are...no longer important," said Drai at last. His eyes opened, and they were a dark color Azzir had only seen in very ill degonti. He tensed up, unnerved. But then Drai blinked, and they were back to normal. "What is important is I find degonti."

“So you said before,” muttered Azzir.

Drai sighed and pulled a string of beads out of his tunic. He tossed it down on the table as if it would explain everything. Azzir just stared in bewilderment, eventually picking the beads up when Drai didn’t take them back.

“These are, ah, very nicely carved. Would probably sell for a fair amount. But what is it for?”

“They show prophecy," explained Drai. "Is old prophecy, important to my tribe. I look for the one on the first bead.”

“This hooded and cloaked man?” Azzir asked, flicking the carving on the top bead. “Is he the prophet or something? Why is he so special?”

Drai reached over and took the beads back, sliding them into his tunic. Azzir winced, but the oddly unoffendable Sandwalker just sat silently for a few minutes, his eyes a thoughtful brown.

Hasafla iso-ia imasa,” Drai whipered. Azzir could only guess it was the Sandwalker language. “The Wanderer chooses the way,” Drai explained haltingly. “It means he chooses path? Or way of being? I know not your words."

"So he makes plans for others," Azzir suggested.

"Plans, yes. He chooses what others will do. Tama sa-uba dia imtasa. The Wanderer goads the kings to act, to fight the evil, then...I do not know words for the rest. Is long prophecy. But I must find this Wanderer. Find him, and side-near-side bring prophecy to bear.”

“Side-by-side,” Azzir corrected absently. He stared at Drai’s tunic, where the beads were hiding, as if that would help him picture what was engraved on their sides. “It’s rather vague, even for a...a myth. Now I’m not saying it’s all folly—“ Azzir held up his hands. “—but it’s not much to go by. Isn’t there something else you know about this Wanderer guy?”

“There is another prophecy, different prophecy, about the Wanderer.” Drai stopped, his eyes glowing an ever richer color of golden-brown as he jogged his memory. “Prophecy is not right word; perhaps story is better. It tells of a Ba'malra, separated from his kin, and now has no riches, no honor. Many do not like him because of his looks.” Drai pointed to his eyes, referring to the double-meaning that a foul-hearted degonti was often revealed by the colors of his eyes as well by as his demeanor.

“And what happened to him? In the story, I mean.” A noble in exile, like me, thought Azzir glumly. But a bad one. Not like me. Definitely not.

“He is hunted into desert by those he once called friend. He is taken by Demon Prince, Re’Sheek.” Drai paused, and his eyes flashed that odd dark color again. “The story does not tell how, but he later re-emerges as a leader of his people.”

“Huh,” said Azzir, his tone sullen. "So an exiled noble, is he? They're easy to spot. You know them by that funny mad look in their eye."

“How can one be funny and angry at the same time?” asked Drai.

“Not that kind of funny," Azzir growled. The mention of exiled nobles had put him in a foul mood. "Funny like...odd. Strange."

“Funny is a funny word,” said Drai. If he hadn't known any better, Azzir could've sworn he saw a gleam of mischief in the Sandwalker's eyes.

Irritated, Azzir replied, "There's a lot of nobles around here. So you better get started if you hope to find him in the next century."

“You are not coming?” Drai actually looked crest-fallen for a moment.

“Well, I suppose I could," Azzir said reluctantly. "What would be my compensation, hm?"

Drai looked at Azzir blankly. Azzir sighed.

“I find you the exiled noble, and you give me something in return. Like bartering. That's compensation.”

Drai’s eyes narrowed. “It is Ba'malra custom to exchange favors for goods?” When Azzir didn’t answer, Drai snorted and continued, “I will do Sandwalker custom. You will get favor in return for your favor. You may chose now or later what favor will be.”

It wasn't as good as money or hinterweed, Azzir thought, but it might be worth something. And anything was better than washing more dirty dishes.

"Fine, deal. I'll do a tour with you of the whole neighborhood if you want. We'll even case the baron's manor while we'll at it," Azzir snapped sarcastically.

“You have more knowledge of this hunting ground than I,” said Drai mildly. Azzir whipped his gaze back around to stare at the Sandwalker, thinking he had detected another note of mischief.

But Drai only stared back at him, eyes darkening with confusion.

Shaking his head, Azzir shoved himself to his feet. “You’re just going to have to learn to speak our language, buddy.”
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-24 08:01 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter Two

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 wind...it 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 me...us. 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.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-10-24 07:22 pm

Lives of the Saints, Chapter One

So there you have it. For more than a thousand years, Ra’Qara and Re’Gelrin ruled their people. They expanded their clan’s territory, traveling east into the steppes held by the Brown Skins. There they learned new skills, new ways of living, and so they settled down on the fringes of the desert. They built great cities of stone for themselves and abandoned the nomadic way of life that the degonti had embraced for generations.

But not all degonti became People of the Stone, or so we call them now. Some still retained the old ways of following the moon and the wind across the vast desert plain, the ways of the Sandwalkers…


“Ocotillo. Spiny shrubs that bear red flowers during spring and summer. Soothes coughing and sore throats. Liquorice. Bears white flowers in early summer; the roots taste sweet. Relieves aches and strengthens the body against infections. Kingsberry. Small bushes with bright red berries that grow near water. No practical use, but very tasty.”

The makhani facing Drai nodded slightly at his reciting, the ornaments in her hair tinkling softly as she moved her head. Her hair was bleached to off-white from her great age, and her degonti skin was almost black from so many years under the sun.

“Well done. Keep going,” she said in her hoarse voice. Drai bowed his head respectfully and continued.

“Aloe vera. Stiff stalks shaped like spiny leaves. Cures infections and…and…I-I forget.”

“Soothes stomach complaints when ingested,” finished the makhani. She looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching the tent. A male degonti poked his head inside. He ran his eyes over Drai and scowled softly, but quickly turned to give the makhani a respectful bow.

“The sachem wants to see you.”

The makhani tipped her head up slightly, and Drai directed his gaze to the rugs on the ground. He was a cripple, and so he garnered no respect from the other male. If only his lungs were not so weak…

“Did he specify a reason? I am teaching a student,” said the makhani calmly. Drai stared harder at the rugs as if he could burn a hole through them that he crawl through. He wished she wouldn’t mention him. Bad enough that he couldn’t become a warrior because of his weak breath, but he was forced into a position usually only held by women...

The other degonti cast a distrustful look at Drai and reluctantly said, “It’s about the Enemy.”

“Mm. Very well.” The makhani slowly got to her feet. “Continue your recitations, Drai. I should not be gone long.”

Drai bowed his head as the makhani followed the other degonti. When she was gone, the yurt became very quiet. Outside were the voices of children as they played and of women as they dressed the carcass of the kill the hunters had brought in that morning. But here in the yurt, Drai felt as if he were apart from them, in a separate world.

And so it has been all my life.

Drai stood and lifted the tent flap just enough to look outside. The camp was in good spirits today, exuding feelings of warmth and family that Drai never fully felt for himself. Drai pulled his gaze away from the others, over to the sachem’s yurt that the makhani had just entered.

She was in there for a very long time, and Drai wondered what was so important. The Enemy had been a scourge to the Sandwalkers for generations. It was He, Re’Sheek, who commanded the desert winds to blow as they did, burying watering holes and snuffing out the delicate plant life. It was said He had been mortal once, and would be mortal again when Re’Vekra returned from the grave to destroy Him for His treachery.

Not that anyone believed those old stories. Re’Vekra had been murdered ages ago by the jealous Stone gods. The stories of his return were only tales told to children to soothe them when the tents flapped particularly violently, when the howl of the wind rose to a shrieking like a wounded degonti…

Drai shuddered. Sometimes he heard words in those winds. A bad omen, his people believed. The only voice that spoke on the wind was the Enemy’s, and thus He lured His faithful to Him.

Eventually the makhani emerged from the sachem’s yurt, looking grimmer than usual. She cast a perfunctory glance at the other members of the tribe, and then turned to look Drai straight in the eye. Drai quickly dropped his gaze, but she strode up to him purposefully.

“We must talk.”

“About the Enemy? I will gladly give my life as is honorable—“

“Yes, the Enemy! Shush, child, these are not words for the rest of the tribe to hear. Step inside.”

Biting back a protest, Drai stepped aside, holding the tent flap open for the makhani. She entered and crossed over to her favorite rug. As she settled down on it, her slow movements seemed older than ever. She looked at Drai, or through him, rather. Drai sat down opposite to her and waited for her to speak first.

“And so it has come to pass at last,” sighed the makhani. She passed a hand wearily over her brow, an unusually evocative gesture that made Drai squirm uncomfortably. She paused then, unhooking one of the baubles in her hair and handing it to Drai.

Drai stared at it as he held it in his palm. It was a string of beads, each carved to represent different parts of the prophecy of Re’Vekra. The symbol of the Wanderer, the circle of kings, the Starpool, the draconic khurarl, and at last, the Forest of Jade. Drai turned the first bead in his fingers. The Wanderer was always said to be despised wherever he went, but to bring great fortune to those who gave him lodgings.

“I give this to you. It will help guide your journey.”

Drai looked up, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“You know the prophecies as I have taught you,” said the makhani. “The Wanderer picks up his staff at the turning of the winds. The circle of kings calls to council once more. From the Starpool emerges a champion to right those wronged. The khurarl gather to fight, and the Forest is reborn anew, giving bounty to all.”

Drai shook his head. “It’s just a bunch of nonsense. The khurarl don’t even exist.”

“No!” the makhani snapped, and Drai cringed at her fury. But on looking at him, the fire left her eyes and she softened. “No, it is not nonsense, my child. The winds are stirring. Re’Sheek’s people gather their strength. Now is the time for the Wanderer to emerge.”

Drai stared at the beads. For a moment he thought he saw the carving of the Wanderer shift, his hood drawing back to reveal his face. He had long hair like a sachem.

But then it was gone, and the hood was back in place. Too much hinterweed, thought Drai. “I don’t understand what you want me to do.”

“You have not been happy here,” said the makhani gently. “The other warriors have earned the right to grow out their hair, but still you sit here with a shaved head past your twentieth spring.”

“I do not lack strength!” snapped Drai in protest. “I’ll earn the right. Someday. I will. I won’t dishonor my family.”

“Your family is lost,” said the makhani. Drai looked up at her accusingly, and she stared calmly back. “Your destiny is not that of your warrior kin, Drai. I see that now. I understand why the sachem had me train you. You are not a fighter.” She paused and a smile touched her eyes, though Drai couldn’t see the levity in the situation. “You are a dreamer.”

Drai squeezed his eyes shut, bowing his head and clutching the beads hard. “No, I’m not a Deviant! I don’t—won’t listen to the voices. I won’t betray the tribe. Please d-don’t--don’t exile me.”

“No,” said the makhani. Her gentleness had disappeared and she spoke with the authority of a sachem. “Your place is not here. You will go out into the world. Today.”

“Please…”

“You will find this Wanderer. You will find the champion of the Starpool. You will set these prophecies into motion.”

Drai felt a lump in his throat that wouldn’t go away when he swallowed. He felt someone kiss his forehead, and he looked up into the makhani’s face. “It is not exile,” she whispered. “Not the exile of one who has betrayed the clan, anyway. You are needed, Drai, but you are not needed here. This is not your family. You owe no one here the birth debt.”

She was talking about his foreigner father. Drai’s mother had been one of the tribe, but his father had arrived from the desert. No one knew him and he had no breeding, but he earned the tribal rights anyway.

And then he had betrayed the tribe in favor of Re’Sheek. Their warriors were still suffering from that loss.

“But I can make up for—“

“No!” said the makhani and shoved him away. “You will go. This is the order of the sachem, and not my doing. You will leave. You will go east. You will not return until you have fulfilled your duty.”

There was nothing he could do. Drai looked away, feeling his weak chest tighten as he tried to keep his sobs down. Warriors did not cry. But he was not really a warrior now, was he?

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and, not roughly, the makhani pulled him to his feet. She picked two bags of dried herbs—those that delayed hunger and those that soothed pain—from her stash and set them in his hands. With a pause, she also took down the beaded pouch holding the Zmbah from where it hung on the wall, and pushed this in his hands, too. Drai ran his fingers along the tiny colored beads, praying for the magic in the pouches' contents to give him strength.

“The sachem has ordered provisions set aside for you. He will give you your heading.” The makhani went quiet, studying him, and at length she pulled Drai into a hug. “Don’t despair, my child. I will always consider you one of my own, even if I did not birth you.”

“Thanks,” Drai whispered. And he couldn’t help it when his tears escaped.

*****

The place was like nothing Kevaar had ever seen before.

The plains had continued beneath his feet for days now, rolling monotony after rolling monotony of grass and the occasional rock. In contrast, the cliffs had appeared quite suddenly, like a coyote had taken a big bite from the land, revealing the red rock beneath, like the striated muscles of the living earth. Bands of carrot, cream, rust, and greenish ochre painted the rocks all the way down, ending in a soft sand the color of rosewood. This sand stretched on into the dusty horizon, a deadened plain even flatter than that of the grasslands Kevaar still stood in.

The degonti squinted, but his second eyelids were of no use against the glare. Even the chirping and buzzing insects that had been his constant companions in the grasslands were silent here, from awe or a trepidation similar to Kevaar's, he couldn't tell.

The degonti thumped his walking stick against the parched red dirt of the road, bringing himself back to reality. "Well! No time like the present, eh?" he said to an unseen observer, then began to pick his way down among the rocks.

He could almost forget himself in this silent land watched only by the sun. But to Kevaar, that was preferable. A dozen tales of intrigue and gallantry dogged his footsteps, or so he liked to brag to the barmaids in the taverns he had frequented along the way. It was a brave face put on a less than brave past, and somehow the most ignominious parts of his history never made it into stories told in the smokey taverns. The patrons were sure to hear such things after, Kevaar thought, once his pursuers arrived and he, with any luck, was long since gone. Kevaar grimaced.

Any of those barmaids probably would have thought him out of his mind if they learned he had journeyed here, far from all things familiar. Out in the deserts was no place for an enterprising young rogue, or so his old masters would have told him. The natives were savages, too ill bred to even know how to read, and he would find nothing of value unless he knew an avid collector of stone handaxes and bird feathers to pay the acquiring fee.

Perhaps his old masters were right. Kevaar cursed as he slipped on the gravelly slope, stopping himself from plummeting to his death only by grabbing on to a nearby boulder. I am out of my league, or would be, if there were any leagues out here worth mentioning!

Which is exactly why he had chosen to come here, he reminded himself. No organized crime meant no competition. No competition meant no one hankering to slit his throat in a back alley... The land was wild enough that even his pursuers would think twice about following him here. Yes, it had been a very good idea to come here.

The self-congratulating thief was too wrapped up in his thoughts to notice that the western horizon had begun to darken. A native could have told him that a sandstorm approached and he should find cover. Unfortunately for Kevaar, no native was nearby.
grayfoxblog: painting of a gryphon backlit by the sun (Default)
2015-08-09 12:54 pm

Lives of the Saints, Prologue

Come inside, come inside. The desert wind is harsh today, time for young ones to cease their play and listen to their elders.

A tale, you say? I have many. Re’Kevaar the Just, Sandwalker Drai, Azzir the Forgotten One. These interest you?

Let me look out at the storm. The Dreamingwind they used to call these windstorms, did you know that? My, it looks like we are in for a long dream! That is good, for great legends require long hours, and I have just the legend for you today.

But first, my great story requires a little back lore. Yes, Yotingo, if you wish to make yourself a historian, then you must study the culture.

And so I begin today’s lesson with one about Re’Gelrin and Ra’Qara, or, as you may know them, Greatmother Qara and Greatfather Gelrin. It began, hm, nigh on 10,000 years ago…



*****

Re’Gelrin and Ra’Qara were mortal once. These were the days when only the degonti walked the sands; there were no sulogu, no heshti. The sands themselves stretched in every direction, unmarred by the structures of the Ba'malra or the Brown Skins. It was a canvas for the gods, who painted their pictures by walking our plane as one of us, flesh and bone and blood.

What is a degonti, you ask? Good question. Degonti are short, like the Brown Skins from the West—about 6 handspans tall. They walk on their heels like bears and have grey skin like the fire’s ash. Their eyes are bright and glowing. It is said a degonti can never lie, as their eyes shift colors depending on their true feelings.

Now, Qara was particularly well-respected degonti, also the Ra of her tribe, and she had a mate in the one named Vekraa, her respective Re. Gelrin was their advisor, and, some said, there was more than just counsel exchanged between he and Ra'Qara.

But if that were so, it never got in the way of their leadership. Qara and Vekraa’s tribe were the wealthiest in the desert. Back then, wealth was not measured in glittering metals, but in hunting territory and the strength and loyalty of one's followers. Re'Kevaar's hunters knew the lore of the land, which of the yez to cull and which to tame, which of the mulusdar to eat and which to leave to the coyote. The land flourished under their tending, and the cacti grew tall and covered with jade!

Hey now, I know it sounds laughable, but that was the way the story was told me by our honorable makhani. For as you know, our makhani are the bearers of wisdom past and they do not take kindly to laughing, Yotingo!

Now then, where was I? His warriors! Yes. Re'Vekraa's warriors were stronger than most, it is true, but perhaps not the most loyal, as we will see. Whether by rumor or betrayal, jealousy and hatred grew among their ranks, until the tribe of Re'Sheek saw their opportunity to challenge the larger tribe for dominance of the land.

A party of Re'Sheek's people came to Re'Vekraa's tent one evening to formally administer their challenge. But instead of Re'Vekraa meeting them outside as was right and proper, Ra'Qara greeted them and bid them enter. Re'Vekraa, it was said, was terribly ill and could not speak to them. This was a great insult, but what was said between the Ra and the challengers under those hide roofs has been lost to history. All the other degonti knew was that war was declared the following day.

I would describe the war, but honestly? It was just terrible. The blood of entire clans and tribes drenched the sands red. At Muatha, there was a particularly terrible battle, lasting four whole moons, and even now if you go there, you see the sand stained with the blood of the fallen. Green magefires burned on the horizons long into the nights, and whole stretches of dunes were turned to glass from the heat. Many tribes were completely annihilated, their clan names forgotten. The mulusdar fled and the yez became intractable. Coyotes feasted on the bodies of the dead, and it began to occur to the warriors on both sides to ask why they had even been fighting in the first place!

Eventually the strength of Ra’Qara’s tribe began to wane. One night, as the Wanderer rode high into the sky, Ra’Qara called a council of elders, Gelrin and the ailing Re'Vekraa among them.

“We must destroy Re'Sheek's tribe before the season is out,” she warned the council. "Or else there will not be enough time to prepare for the Dying of the Green."

"I do not want the blood of so many people on my hands," said Re'Vekraa, and though his voice was strong, many of the others thought him fitful and demoralized by his long illness. But the people of Re'Vekraa were honorable, and none of them commented.

"The magi stand ready," reported one of the sachems. "A fire lit among Re'Sheek's yurts should route them."

"Women and children live in those yurts," Ra'Qara said quickly, more to soothe her husband than anything else. "No. Gelrin and I have a better idea, and it will require your full cooperation." The eyes of the other councilors flared red at being chastized so, but whatcould they say?

Ra’Qara spread her arms, her ceremonial Ra feathers making her seem a bird. “The plan is thus. We will travel to the Starpool at dawn, and there lay an ambush for the Enemy."

Now, I’m not sure what you’ve heard of the Starpool, but it is an oasis deep within the desert. Strange jade-topped cacti ring a deep lake, their waving forms reflected perfectly in the still water. It is said that one can gaze into these waters to see their fortune, but not many risk it, for monsters swim in its depths. It was a desperate place for a desperate battle.

The tribe cut the cacti thorns there to make bulwarks and lashed its flesh into litters to prepare for the wounded. All the while they kept a careful distance from the mystical pool. The ambushers laid up, covering tarpaulins with sand and hiding beneath them. Ra’Qara sent her challenge to Re’Sheek, sending a green bolt of magefire into the air.

Re’Sheek arrived the next day with his tribe, weary from the long march but ready to fight. Their warriors stalked into the oasis warily. Despite their wariness, their only warning was the sand shifting beneath their feet before the spears of Re'Vekraa's people emerged. The fighting was fast, furious. Re'Vekraa roared himself hoarse giving commands, and when he could no longer speak, Gelrin took his place.

Presently, Re'Sheek heard the shouting and approached the Re with two of his warriors. Out of bowshot, he called to Re'Vekraa, and his words have been passed down through myth: “Your health has abandoned you, as have your people's loyalty! Give me the rights to leadership, Brother Vekraa, and may we rebuild together and lead our clans to a new glory!"

Re’Vekraa, proud, did not answer. Gelrin, however, taunted the Re, comparing his ancestors to tsetse flies.

Re'Sheek, angered, charged Re'Vekraa's honorguard with his chosen warriors. Re'Vekraa leaped up front of Gelrin to protect him, though he slipped on the wet sand by the Starpool's banks. The blade that did him in was not seen, but a sudden breach opened up in the fighting, and Re'Vekraa fell to the ground, mortally wounded.

Re'Sheek clutched a throat wound, glaring at Gelrin, who held his bloodied blade grimly. “Cowards! Betrayers!" shouted Re'Sheek, gurgling on his blood. "May the sands cover your treacherous bodies until they are forgotten!” And so with lies of dissension has Re'Sheek always weakened his foes. He then leaped for the doubting Gelrin, but at the same time, Re'Vekraa began to rise, and all three degonti overbalanced into the Starpool and were lost to its depths.

The fighters and waters both were still for many long moments. Then there was a splash, and Gelrin emerged, grasping a feather from Re'Sheek's headcrown. Flourishing this, he declared victory. Re’Vekraa did not emerge, and was counted among the dead.

Ra’Qara’s tribe was torn between grief and celebration that night. Although Re’Vekraa had died defending his comrade, Re’Sheek had been done in by Gelrin’s bravery. For his valor, Gelrin was awarded the position of Re, leader of the tribe and to-be mate of Ra’Qara. The war was expected to end quickly thereafter.

But it was not to be. There were rumors of treachery among the councilors, though it could not be proven. Many clans exchanged loyalties that night, some to the tribes of Ra'Qara, some to the tribes of the late Re'Sheek.

By morning, the pool had turned the poisonous green of magefire. Anyone who drank of its water became horribly ill, and it was rumored to be the work of a god's vengeance. Disheartened, both peoples retreated back into the desert, but their conflicts did not stop there. In time, the division between the tribes widened. The people of Ra'Qara, fat and complacent with their victories, would choose to settle and build houses made of the earth, and so they took on the new name of Ba'malra. Those who followed Re'Sheek, and those who confusedly deserted Ra'Qara for the incident at the Starpool, would fracture further until they no longer posed a great threat to the Ba'malra. Some of them, those loyal to Re'Vekraa's memory, would come to be known as the Sandwalkers. The others, well...the others were thought to be cursed. I will tell you their story later.

Re'Sheek and Re'Vekraa's bodies were never recovered from the Starpool. It was not, however, to be the end of their reign on our mortal plane. No, their story continues, as does the story of Ra'Qara and Re'Gelrin's troubles...