The Fifth Path (3/30)

The First Draft of the Autobiography of Baal Uras, Soon to be 28th King of the True Land

Running Title: The False Year: A Tale of Wonders and Horrors from beyond the Veil of Truth

Composed Nisanu 10th In the 59th Year of Baal Shamas

Chapter 2: The Desert

To describe the desert in words is all but impossible. I had heard tell, in the books and from the scholars, that the domain of the Hashim was that of the desert, a place described as endless sand, with heat that scorched the skin and tore the water from within your body, leaving you a living corpse. Being a skeptical youth in that time of learning, I had dismissed this tale as another fantastical tale of the false land, something true perhaps in the basics, but blown out of proportion in the retelling. While oft my skepticism has served me in life, when it comes to the tales of the false world, thus far it has failed me utterly. We covered our bodies entirely in rough, pale, cloth. Again, I balked at this, but my Scholar, and the guide he had found for us, were insistent and I bowed to their wisdom. It was truly a testament to my own wisdom that I did, for had I walked the path of listening not to the council of those who serve me, then that day I surely would have died. Even with our bodies covered entirely, the sun beat down upon us like a mother disciplining a particularly willful child. How our beasts of burden, the camel creatures I described to you before, managed to endure it, whilst carrying us and our baggage is a mystery to myself. Perhaps their heavy fur turns away the heat somehow.

Let me then try, for your sakes, gentle reader, to describe the desert. Imagine perhaps the market’s of Imba that I described to you before. Think of the riot of colors, the cacophony of voices and peoples. Now compare that to the quietest field, or most hidden forest glen. The desert is, in emptiness, to that most quiet of places, as that quiet place is to the markets I have described. There is not but the endless sand and the cruel rays of the sun. Nothing else. No plants. No clouds. No large rock or visible mountains. Nothing on the horizon but more sand. No living thing save ourselves, and we became less fitting of that descriptor with each passing hour in that place. If the priests speak truth, and there is a place Bel sends the unworthy, a hell that the Monster has true reign over, I might think this desert that place, except, in truth, I do not believe even the Monster could stand to rule this place. And yet, somehow, the capital of this island, an entire city rested in the very center of this forsaken place. And according to our guide, a knowledgeable, if very young, Hashim, there are those who live in this place, and visit the towns and cities only on rare occasions. Somehow they find both food and water in this place of total emptiness, and endure the heat of it through each passing day. It is things such as this that make me truly believe the words of the priests. A place such as this could not truly exist except in the false world of dreams. And yet the desert is so solid. Truly the dreams of Anshur are powerful, even influenced by the Monster.

So it was, that we passed through the desert. Our first day, Nisanu 6th, I must feel shame for my weakness. The heat and the overpowering emptiness of the desert got to me after only a few short hours, and I, though I hate to recount it now, fell from my camel. It is a testament to the skill and speed of my Protector, that I survived the fall. Even before I had struck the ground, she had leaped from her place behind me, and caught me in her arms. My consciousness returned but a few moments later, and for a brief moment I thought my Protector an Angel of Anshur, come to take me from the world of Bel. As my senses followed my consciousness however, and my memories soon after, I recalled that I had journeyed forth from the true world of Bel already, and that the angel I looked upon had in fact accompanied me there. I do now truly understand the wisdom of my father in selecting this protector. While perhaps more shameful to be saved by a woman, to be held and protected by one is a much more pleasant experience than it might have been with a protector who was a man. I must not allow this to show of course, as to get the poor girls hopes up, when, upon returning, I must marry another Baal, would be cruelty most severe. Still, I favor her with a warm smile, thank her for the rescue, and begin to follow the advice of our guide more stringently, drinking deeply of the water we brought along, despite its warmth and strange flavor. Perhaps the true purpose of the Awakening is to teach a young Baal the wisdom of listening to their advisers. Truly I will die one hundred times over before this journey is concluded if I continue to ignore their advice.

After that embarrassing episode, the rest of the first day passed by smoothly, though the sheer implausibility of the desert continued to wear on my mind. In a fit of peek, I demanded from our guide an example of something that the supposed wanderers of this blasted waste might eat, not believing that there could truly be anything at all. We stopped, and she set out on her own for a few short minutes. A moment later she came back with not one, but two possible foods. One was a strange lizard, which she said could be eaten for its meat, but also carried within itself a small packet of drinkable water. The other was like a great black spider, except with an arched tail ending in a wicked looking spike. This she called a scorpion, and said that it could be eaten if cooked well. Its tail carried a powerful venom, but even that could be cooked and eaten, though carefully. She asked if I wanted to eat either now, and when I declined, she suggested we might try them for dinner after we ended our trek for the day. The idea of eating either of those creatures set not well on my stomach, but I decided then that I must try a taste, if only out of respect for the small girl’s culture. Before we continued on, the girl spoke about the danger that these scorpion creatures could cause, especially for parties as small as our own. At the time I was not overly worried, though now, with the memories of future events to guide my actions, I wish I had listened with more intensity.

At last, the sun began to crest the horizon, and the guide told us that we must stop. She arranged our camp in a strange way, with four fires surrounding our tents, which surrounded the three camels together in the center. Though there was nothing out in the desert, she insisted on a watch all through the night. The watch was to patrol the outside of the tents, with a torch and watch the fires. If a fire ever got low they were to stoke it, and they were to watch carefully the shadowy areas between each fire, making sure nothing came through. I thought to ask her why, but the day had made me already feel like and idiot and I was tired from our long journey that day. I should, perhaps, have offered to take my place in the watch rotation, but, as I said, I was tired and feeling dull from the day in the sun, so I allowed my servants to protect the camp without my aid. A ruler must always consider when to delegate and when to help directly, but I think, on that night, I chose incorrectly. Still, it would not be that night that the danger approached so my decision had little impact. I slept a troubled sleep, my mind turning and twisting through the events of the day, considering how I might better have both led and listened. When I awoke however, my mind was at rest. With a new day there is a new chance at excellence. Being the most well rested I was obviously the most energetic, so I cheerfully helped break down camp, and, I hope, improved moral in my doing. We had not cooked the scorpion or lizard that last night, but that morning I had the dubious pleasure of trying each. The scorpion was bad, though not as much as I had assumed, but the lizard was a tasty treat, much akin in taste to the squirrels of the true land.

After we had eaten, and just as the sun began to fully rise again, we set out once again, across the sand, through this empty void in the false world. This day felt much akin to the last, an endless battle against the heat which threatened to burn us alive, and the sheer lack of anything to see or experience, which threatened to turn our minds against us, minds looking for something, anything new to see, hear, or feel. Even as our camels trudged on, step after step, never tiring, stopping only to occasionally drink and eat from the food and water we had brought with us, my mind wandered every which way. I imagined lizards and scorpions stretched out under the sand, barely hidden under a thin layer of the white and yellow powder. I imagined a great beast, larger than the sky, hidden under the sand, waiting for ancient conditions to be fulfilled before it consumed the world. I imagined specks of movement on the horizon, trying to hide themselves in the suns rays so that they might creep up on us. When that last imagining failed to disappear from my mind however, I turned to my Protector, and told her of what I saw. It took her a few moments to find the specks on the horizon, and I saw doubt in her eyes. That doubt was like a knife for me. My actions of yesterday had been less inspiring surely, but I had not thought that I had been so diminished in my followers eyes that they would doubt my own. I resolved then to do what I could to earn the respect of my companions, for none can be a true leader without it.

Even as I made this resolution, my Protector finally saw what I had seen. She acted quickly, pointing out the movement on the horizon to our other two companions without making it obvious to any who might be looking at us that we had spotted anything at all. The camel with the other companions upon it moved closer to us almost imperceptibly. Once we got close enough that we could talk without moving our heads, our young guide advised us of what to expect. It seemed that the sun angle hiding did not itself imply an ambush, as many of the desert tribes were cautious and would hide themselves at first before they decided what to do. The movements she had seen since we had spotted them however were suspicious and we were likely going to be attacked. We had two choices. The first was to spring the trap, and fight the brigands. The second was to move around the area where they were setting up the ambush. While the second initially seemed more wise, our guide recommended the first. She explained that raiding parties rarely give up on an attack because of the rarity of people in small enough groups to raid. Turning aside would simply mean they would try again another day, and this next time they would be stealthier and we would not necessarily spot them the second time. The logic was sound and so we prepared to spring an ambush. The girl knew well how long it would take us to reach the ambush location, based on the speed of our camels, and so we were all given a length of time, and told to count it down in our head, being ready to react as the countdown reached zero.

The moments leading up to the springing of the trap were among the most intense in my life up to this point. I have been in dangerous situations, and even practiced fighting with live weapons, but never before had I been in an encounter with anyone with real intent to murder me. I tried to keep my companions in mind, and overcome any fear or hesitation I might have with the need to be a strong and respected leader. I could not afford to act in a cowardly or inept fashion here if I wished to truly lead this expedition. With that thought in mind time passed slowly, and I worried that my count was far off as we traveled, for to me, every sand dune looked the same, and I had only the ever decreasing number in my head as an indicator of how close we were. My number reached zero, and nothing happened for a long time. I tensed up, barely able to keep my hand from reaching for my axe. Then, the sand shifted, and four shapes, covered in the same heavy cloth as us, struck.

I wish, gentle readers, that I could tell you exactly what happened in that skirmish. I know many of the greatest tales of valor describe each swing of a weapon, each clash of blade, and dodge of strike. But for myself, I barely remember my own actions, let alone those of my companions. I can describe only in broad strokes what happened. Shamefully, I did freeze, but only for a moment. My Protector lived up to her name, leaping off of the camel, and striking at the two enemies closest to my own camel before they even knew they had been seen. I had known her to be a weapons master, for every guard of the Baal is one, but her ferocity and skill was incredible to see. Had I not heard shouts from the other side, I would perhaps have remained frozen, not from fear, but from fascination with her battle style, an aggressive, close quarters style of fighting involving a pair of long handled maces, as well as liberal use of her limbs and head. But while my Protector was more than holding her own against two of our attackers, our other flank was not doing so well. Our young guide seemed to be holding her own, but I could not tell for sure, for my attention was on my Scholar, who had apparently, in that first moments of battle, been stabbed. Leaping from the camel, not perhaps as gracefully as I would wish, I charged towards the raider who seemed in prime position to take the life of my Scholar.

From that point forward, until the end of the battle, I fought. It was desperate and clumsy. There were no elegant parries or moments of calm. Me and my handaxe fought with the Hashim raider and his knives. There was biting, and kicking, and wrestling, and even spitting. I was more terrified than I ever had been before in my life. I was cut many times, but so too was my opponent. In the end it was not my skill or any trait of mine that won the day. Instead, the man tripped, I think over my fallen Scholar, and I slammed my axe into his head, ending the fight. I thought then to turn and join the rest of the battle, but somehow it seemed that the tide had turned, and my other two companions had reduced our attackers to one. Confident in the pairs ability to deal with the last of them, I turned my attention to my Scholar.

While I knew the basics of how to treat and care for the injured, I had no idea how close to death my companion was. He had been stabbed twice in the chest and gut. If those stabs had struck important organs, then the man might well be as good as dead already. If they had missed, and he had been lucky, then he might survive. I did what I could. I cleaned the wounds with water and with alcohol before bandaging them up, that his blood might not seep from him. By this point my other two companions had finished up the last of our attackers, and they helped me. We fashioned a sled for our injured companion, that he might lie down, and be dragged smoothly instead of feeling the up and down jostling of a ride upon the camels. I asked of any place where he might be cured, but the guide said we must continue, that the capital alone had those of sufficient skill to heal our friend.

I wish I could tell you that the journey was smooth and our companion cured quickly. There was one more trial we had to face however, before we could make it to the city. And as luck would have it, wicked things seem to clump together, for our final trial would come that very night. We camped again as the sun began to fall, and again our guide made four campfires. This time I had no choice but to join the rotation, for our Scholar could not take a turn. I would not have skipped it in any event, for while I had proven myself adequate in the combat, I continued to feel the need to prove myself to my companions. So it was that late in the night I was circling the camp with a torch, watching the dark places between the fires. This was harder than it might seem, for the flickering of fires and the changing angle of my own torch as I walked made many shifts in shadow. It was easy indeed to imagine some movement where there truly was nothing at all. So I moved cautiously, double checking all that I saw, perhaps still paranoid at moving shapes after our last encounter with them. This paranoia might very well have saved all our lives, for I did spot something that I thought was movement, and when I looked again and did not see anything, I did not simply move along, but approached to have a better look. What I saw then still keeps me up some nights.

What I had first seen turned out to be a lone scorpion, but when I moved forward to shoe it away with my torch, it seemed that the shadows on the dunes moved with it when it ran. I took another step, and again the very sand seemed to shift. I realized then, to my horror, that the blackness of the sand was not due to the lateness of the night but due instead to the fact that what I was seeing was not sand. It was scorpions. A carpet of scorpions stretched out across the dunes. As my eyes adjusted, I saw them in every direction, thousands and millions of scorpions surrounding us, surrounding the circle of fires and tents and camels. I screamed. What followed, was, like the fighting, something more akin to a desperate dream than any real experience. The two sleeping women awoke, and after some quick words lit there own torches. We waited then for the scorpions to strike, for our guide said that when they reach this number, they cannot help but strike. In the darkness of the night, with fire as our only defense, we fought back the tides of scorpions when at last they came. Four shadowed paths between the fires, three companions with torches with which to block the paths and push the creatures back. The scorpions were endless and tireless. Sometimes they broke through, and we had to drive them back out with flasks of oil and hasty fires. Once, they breached the tents, but luckily it was an empty one, and we burned it down and them inside. For hours that seemed like days, we chased back the scorpions, defended our camp, kept up our fires and stayed alive. Then, at last, the sun rose, the scorpions retreated, and we could rest. Or rather, we might have rested if we had not a desperate need to travel. We broke camp in the scorching heat of day, ate a quick breakfast of charred scorpions, and set forth once again, dragging the Scholar behind.

That next day I was so tired that I barely remember anything at all. I asked our guide why the fires were set as they were, why we did not simply light eight and ward every entrance. She explained then, that while the scorpions feared the fire, if there was no way in but through it, then the hunger of those behind them would push those in front into the fire, and put it out through sheer bulk of bodies, smothering the obstacle with their corpses. If instead there was a path, however small, they would seek to take it, not sacrificing themselves to the fire. By giving the scorpions a small path in, we slowed their advance, and made a series of choke points to defend instead of a pure wave of scorpions that could have overwhelmed us all. I shook my head in wonder. This place is so deadly, yet the people here have learned and adapted still. The cunning and the persistence of man struck me then. It seemed moving indeed that people could find a way to live in this blasted, forsaken place. That any obstacle, any circumstances can be overcome, has always been a basic tenant of my faith, but for me, the scorpions of the desert truly proved that. I spent the rest of that day in a haze of exhaustion and contemplation. We camped again, and I fell asleep right away.

I was awoken by the cries of my companions, and once again a battle with scorpions commenced. There were, I think, less of them that night, and they attacked later. Somehow the fight seemed less desperate as a whole, though every given moment still was frantic and filled with fear. We beat them back till morning came, then we continued on our way. My Scholar had been stable that last day, but in the night he took a turn for the worse. He began to cry out, to shiver and to shake. I feared indeed for his life then, for this seemed to me the madness brought on by infection. I thought then of what to do if my Scholar were to die within the first week of our journey. How might we continue with such a loss of knowledge? Again, however it was our young guide that saved us. When his cries became desperate and weak, the girls stopped our march and disappeared into the dunes. She returned, half an hour later with something I had never expected to see in the desert, a flower. She claimed it had healing properties, and when it was crushed and applied to his wounds, the man did indeed seem to calm. He cried out still, but softer. We made camp, and though I took my turn that night watching, thankfully there were no scorpions. When we all awoke that day, our guide said that this was the last day, that by evening we should reach the capital. With that in mind, we took a longer rest, knowing we had time, and I set down these words you read now. I looked forward then to the capital of this land, and to my first meeting with a foreign dignitary. I would be taking my first step then, on way to the throne.

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