I sat on a cold rock that had already surrendered the last remnants of the day's heat, and considered my options. My throat was parched and I felt terribly thirsty since I've lost a lot of fluid spewing out the contents of my stomach, and was bleeding from all the small wounds I received today. My hand crawled into the pocket of my tattered robes. Amazing though it was, my leather water bottle was still where I put it this morning, together with my precious book of spells. I drained half of the tepid, slightly pungent liquid in one draw, then wet the cleaner part of my sleeve and wiped as much of the dried blood from my face as I dared, without breaking the scabs. When I reluctantly decided to put the flask back, my hand recoiled from the sharp coolness of a blade. I pulled it out in bewilderment. It took me a few minutes to remember whence it came from, and at first I was so disgusted at carrying a token of that attack in my pocket that I almost threw it away into the barbed mesh of blackthorns. Then I thought better of it, and slid the knife back wrapping its blade into a stripe of cloth torn away from my clothes, and wishing I had a belt with a sheaf to carry it on.
The knife reminded me painfully of the whole shameful ordeal, and of a decision I was about to make. My injuries were many but none of them life threatening or seriously debilitating. I had suffered far worse agony in my nightmares. As soon as I reach the temple, Chyil will surely heal me if he would deem my scratches worth wasting his time and the power of his goddess. That was not the point. The mere thought of walking back to Amkethran in my present bedraggled condition, and suffering through the trial of his benign care yet again, was intolerable. His new notion of me causing this damage to myself, as a sort of punishment for my former sins was absurd but I doubted not that he was going to employ it in explaining my misfortune and later illness. The curious drink tears of our heart like flies blood from the open wounds. I could not remember where that line came from but could vouchsafe for the truth in it.
I realized abruptly that I couldn't force myself to face him again to go through the lengthy explanation, which will certainly include telling the details of my association with the human girl. And even if he will allow me to keep my private thoughts to myself, he will no doubt rush to her mother's home to investigate. His first interference was offensive enough, the second one would surely mean an invasion of my highly cherished privacy, and would draw me into another dreadful cycle of expositions that may lead to more confusion and misunderstanding. The last thing I wanted to happen at this stage of my existence was establishing any kind of relationship with anybody, even if it was the link of simple gratitude or a lukewarm friendship. I owed it to myself to remain unaffected by emotions. I simply could not afford anything to come between me and my quest for the lost memories. My bond of gratitude to Chyil suddenly became too much to bear. I thought about our strange dependency on each other. Surely, he benefited as much as I did from that convoluted knot of sentiments. He enjoyed his charity, and the sense of power he had gained over me by showing kindness. He was too vigorous and energetic by nature to live all his life in the tiny village of Amkethran, and his only source of entertainment was taking care of his charges' lives for them. Unknowingly to himself, he picked the deity very close to his heart, or maybe serving Waukeen had changed him in this manner, but at the moment I found his cheerful altruism revolting.
It was time for a clean break, I realized with sudden relief. I was strong enough to survive on my own - Farheed's foiled attack proved it undeniably. And my supposed worry of bringing the smuggler's gang vengeance upon Chyil's head gave me perfect reason for disappearing without explanation. I looked up into the evening sky. The slim crescent of a new moon rose shyly above the horizon, bathing the planes below in its soothing sapphire light. High above my head the Traveler's Star shone coldly like a silver nail driven firmly into the very center of the universe. Tonight it had a strange bright halo, as if surrounded by vacillating blue fire. All of a sudden, it made my heart skip a beat and tremble as if far and away someone has walked upon my shallow grave. I knew the crescent moon, and the azure light of the star were important but could not remember why. The star pointed north as it always did through the centuries that swept by as this small world was carried forth though the icy swirls of primeval ether. It was a perfect time to depart.
I rose to my feet, stretching my shoulders and working the stiffness out of my legs. The goat trail would take me into the hills surrounding the human settlement, and then I can make a circle around Amkethran, stopping only to refill my flask at the well on the eastern outskirt of the village. As for food, I did not think I needed any until tomorrow, since my stomach was still hurting after that sudden fit of nausea. Deep inside I knew I would feel at home in the wilderness - it was that innate knowledge coming visibly from nowhere, like my affinity to magic. I would survive. This body was slim and supple, and could live on roots, grass seeds, and berries. Chyil had taught me which ones were safe to eat in this part of the world. Besides, night was the best time to travel in the desert. The winter season was still far away, and the autumn air was pleasantly cool against my cheeks as I walked briskly down the trail. I have spent half a day lying unconscious at the bottom of the ravine, and now my body was restless driving me forth, eager to get away from that place of misery.
I did not have the slightest idea of where I was headed. Except that I needed to reach one or the other of the major cities, and find an Arcane Guild or a decent library to start my research. My memory was ridden with holes like a head of ripe cheese. I could recall a great deal of facts that were seemingly of no interest to anyone but at the same time was missing the vital information about history and geography of this world, and most alarmingly of the people that were supposedly responsible for spawning me at the first place. I knew nothing of elves but the vague concept of their longevity and secretiveness. Not even if they were all the same nation, had their own country, or were divided into small tribes leading nomadic lifestyle across the vast forests of Faerun. That seemed to be a prevailing belief among the natives of Amkethran. I had not met an elf yet other than myself (and I had serious doubts about being one). Although the thought gave me strange jitters, I was looking forward to learning more about myself, however painful it may prove to be. The two opposing opinions that Farheed and Mirriam had about elves did not surprise me at all, yet I was suppressing my desire to speculate on the matter until I got more facts.
Soon I reached the muddy field around the water hole on the eastern side of the village, stomped with goat and sheep hoofprints, and refilled my bottle from a stone well nearby, pulling the sloshing water skin on a rope out of its cool depth, and emptying the rest of it upon my head and shoulders. What I really wanted was to strip off my clothes and wash away the blood and stinging blackthorn toxin that was causing my scratches to itch so badly. But I could not afford this luxury, since the village was never entirely asleep, and I had no desire to be spotted by one of Farheed's loyalists. It would take him a day or more to recover. By that time I should be as far away from Amkethran as I could make it. Since most of his men had excellent knowledge of the local terrain and I had none, my only advantage would be to have a head start, and hope that in the long run he would decide I was not worth following.
Inadvertently, I was giving him exactly what he wanted - I was leaving the field so he can now pursue his marital plans with Mirriam unhindered. I wished I could make it clear that I was not scared of his pathetic revenge. The way it stood now it looked too much like a flight. But then, I did not really care about the impression I made in the dingy hovel like Amkethran. In fact, the less they remember about me the better. I felt slightly distressed about the girl. She surely did not deserve a husband like that bloated bag of manure. But that was none of my business. At the end, it was her choice.
I draw another skin of water out of the well and soaked my clothes, trying to wash away the stench of blood and vomit that clung to me as a persistent reminder of my folly. When I finally walked away from the well my sandals squelched wetly, and my robes stick to my body, but I did not feel any cleaner by any means. The pollution was deep, as if the taste of my humiliation stuck to my very soul.
I spent all that night walking like automaton, and a fragile blue sickle of the new moon floated in the sky following me like a silent guardian. I knew I should eventually turn north but for now I was content on following the mountain range that was streaking west, hugging the north-eastern tongue of the great Calim desert. The late morning of the next day found me many miles away from Amkethran, among the thin growth of saksaul plants, juniper, and sleepgrass that covered the sand dunes in a bristly blanket of rustling, dry stalks. Somewhere along the way, on the rocky side of the low hill, I found a lonely pistachio tree that judging by the thickness of its bizarrely twisted trunk might have stood there for the last three hundred years, and filled my pockets with oily mass of its green nuts. These should last me a few days, and by then I was sure I will get into more forested type of terrain. My biggest problem so far was my limited resource of water. I never imagined this place was so dry. The leaves of sparse plants were dry and narrow; most of them had sharp serrated edges or were covered with bristle of tiny needles as a protection from grazing animals looking for precious moisture. I had spent three torturous summer months in Amkethran and thought I was adapted to the harsh desert climate. But the village had a steady supply of water. Now I remembered how carefully Chyil measured every cup of liquid he brought for our tea. How he barely tipped the points of his fingers into the bowl with water and a ceremonial coin before blessing the crowd of worshippers at the sundown services.
As I continued to walk across the rocky, uneven ground I looked carefully for any sign of moisture, a damp spot on the ground, or perhaps cluster of plants greener than sun-dried weeds, and acrid-tasting, razor-sharp grasses. The sun was climbing up the pale blue sky when I finally gave up on my search for water, and started to look for cover. I felt terribly tired, and the scratches on my hands, feet and face began to itch anew under the first hot kisses of the morning sun. It was not the torturous midsummer furnace of a sun, but it was still too hot and dry. My leather flask still held more than half of its initial contents but I decided to be more frugal with my water, and only allowed myself a single swallow that left a bitter taste on my paper-dry tongue.
I had spent the day in half-slumber, in a narrow crevice between the two rocks that I managed to squeeze myself into after a few failed initial attempts. I could not sleep properly, and it was a blessing for my daydreams were a pale shadow of their night counterparts. My head felt like it was stuffed with dry wool, and my eyelids were red and crusted from ubiquitous fine sand and red dust. But I was content with my first day of real freedom and decided to press forward, following the outline of the distant mountains on my right. The moon continued to ride with me as I walked through the second night of my journey. It was more of a dream walk than conscious choosing of a path, for I could care less for the sharp rocks, and treacherous landslides that I was trying to avoid so carefully on my first night alone in the desert. My scratches began to fester, and from time to time I raised my hand to touch the angry, puffed lines on my cheeks and brow. I thought I was burning with high fever. It did not matter. Nothing mattered any more but the steady blue light of the moon and the crunch of gravel under my sandaled feet as mile after mile of sand and dry clay were eaten away by murderous run of time.
There is a saying that the gods watch over children and madmen. When the sunrise came, I was not sure to which of the two categories I properly belonged. I did not break my neck through that endless, torturous track across the acrid, barren ground of the great desert, but perhaps it was my misfortune rather than strike of luck. I looked around me in confusion, trying to contemplate the whole folly of my situation. I could not see the silhouettes of the Marching Mountains in any direction. Wherever I looked I saw only the endless stretch of sand dunes, rarely interrupted by patches of rocky soil. I was hopelessly, irredeemably lost in the desert with only a few mouthfuls of water swishing shallowly at the bottom of my flask.
Yes, my circumstances were most unfortunate. I pondered over it, trying to force my thoughts into a slow, clear stream from the volatile, convoluted torrent of images, memories, and half-dreams that was carousing through my mind. I suppose my condition was caused by fever and physical exhaustion after all night walk. The result was quite pitiful. I could not concentrate on anything for long, and caught myself drifting even as I tried to think of when was the last time that I had seen the elusive mountain ridge. Was it on the right or the left side? How did it happen that I lost sight of it? I had near perfect night vision but perhaps the ever-shifting shadows of dunes in the pale moonlight played the trick on my tired eyes. I sighed, resigning to the fact that I would not be able to solve this puzzle in my present condition. I was worn out to the bone, and could not make myself worry about my situation since a wave after wave of fever that was spreading through my body from the angry, inflamed marks left by the blackthorn bush, left me careless and lightheaded.
I crawled into the lacy shadow of a bedraggled tree that was clutching for dear life at the edge of the next dune, and slid into oblivion. And woke up screaming. I was dreaming of falling into an abyssal gorge filled with liquid fire that was sundering my body to the bone, and yet I could not die as my flesh was regenerating as fast as the flames were consuming it, and my charred carcass was plunging down through the waves of blazing heat in an endless horrific animation. The reality was not much better. An angry white disc of the sun was at its zenith, and the shadow thrown by the shrub I was laying under shrank to near nothingness. Even in the last week of Eleint the suffocating heat of the desert stealing every bit of moisture and with it every shred of hope for survival, was unbearable. My entire body was ablaze. Throughout the summer spent in Amkethran my skin never reddened or tanned even a little, but stayed the same pale white color that made me stand out so oddly in the crowd of natives. It was strange but convenient since I never got sunburns. Now the exposed areas of my hands marked with swollen scratch marks were red and blistered, as if my natural protective barriers were weakened by the blackthorn poison. I did not dare to touch my cheeks but it felt like one big sore.
It was clear that staying out on the sun until the nightfall was equal to suicide. I had to start moving in order to find shelter. Ignoring the searing pain of my burns I uncorked the water bottle, and forced one precious gulp of liquid down my throat. My mouth contracted, and before I could stop myself, I swallowed all that was left in the flask. Since that could not be helped, I shook the last precious droplets of water onto my swollen tongue and closed my eyes, shutting out the cruel assault of sunlight, and trying to concentrate on the important things. When I first stopped here in the early hours of the morning, the shadow of the small tree had covered my entire body pointing west. The sun was at it highest point now, and so the shadow retreated almost to the roots of the plant but it was still possible to discern its original position. I could not have possibly strayed away from my chosen course for more than several miles. If I head east, I should reach the foothills of the Marching Mountains regardless of my current location, considering that I could make it that far without fainting from dehydration. The alternative was to stay at this place awaiting slow painful death.
I forced myself upright, and started on the last segment of the excruciating walk through the shifting sand. My every step was an agony of burning pain. I crawled up the endless dunes like a half-crushed beetle, trying to make it to the top without falling and rolling back. Since my feet refused to carry me down, I ceded to sliding from the other side on my knees. I don't believe I managed to get far in this manner, although it felt like every slow climb up the slope lasted for hours. Ultimately, I found myself on top of a particularly tall hill. There I rose to my full height at the very knoll looking east, hoping beyond hope to spot the distant mountain ridge. What I saw instead was a wall of yellow-gray dust hovering over the horizon. It was moving in my direction with ferocious speed and mindless unconcern of newly unleashed sand storm. The air was already filled with tendrils of dust and fine suspension of sand. I could hear the distant howling of the hurricane flying across the plain on the wings of death.
This is the end, the realization came suddenly. I froze, savoring the moment of this discovery. I was not scared, just puzzled that it was going to end so abruptly. I expected more from myself. The perspective of being crushed under many layers of heavy sand and gravel was not pleasant but it was swifter and cleaner death than the slow agony of thirst. I lived through a few desert storms in Amkethran, when the light faded from the sky in the middle of a day and we covered inside for hours listening to the mad wailing of winds and the rustle of sand beyond the puny, clay walls of the house. Later we had to dig our way out. A local legend attributed the storms to the eternal struggle of the two djinn buried under the sands of the Calim desert millennia ago. It did not matter much. I raised my head and smiled slowly, facing east. My every nerve trembled with anticipation. I believe I laughed, and yelled some ridiculous nonsense into the face of the coming storm.
When it hit me with a force of a stone wall, moving with a speed of a herd of wild horses, I was still smiling. Nobody could have endured that. My body simply folded upon itself like torn away sail of a sinking ship. I never reached the ground. Instead, I was lifted up by the roaring whirlwind of sand and hot air. I could swear I saw huge faces, grimacing, cavorting around me, swelling and stretching, shifting from one terrifying shape to another, mocking me with lolling of transparent tongues and gaping of empty cavernous mouths.
You know how you always revel in the rapture of battle, even when you are losing...
I could feel the agony of a thousand grains of sand grafting against my skin
The fury will bring freedom from guilt and the loss will turn into sweetest dreams of revenge...
and whirling, roaring cloud of dust forcing its way into my lungs
The pain will only be passing but the ecstasy of it will linger in your blood...
I was dying a thousand deaths in the midst of hot suffocating darkness my bones were snapping and grinding against each other inside my body like throwing dice in a gambler's hand.
And the wind will scatter the ashes yet again...
* * * * *
Stillness. Calm. Cold. Absence of roaring noise and suffocating heat. Quiet trickle of water by my ear.
My eyes snapped open. I was lying on my back in a shallow pond of water, and the little waves splashed around me slowly turning crimson as they washed over. I tried to turn my head to get a trickle of moisture on my lips, and could not twitch a muscle. The water was so agonizingly close I could cry in anguish. Was I dead? Was it another sort of hellish punishment, to be tormented by thirst in the middle of a pool? A mockery of justice, unwarranted and unexplained?
"What took you so long?" the voice was liquid and mellow, like a melody of thousand brooks singing together in chorus of bubbling water.
I raised my eyes, unable to twist my neck or move a finger. A bright translucent face moved into my field of vision, shining softly as the small undercurrents shaping each exquisite feature run under the clear surface of its skin. Cascades of white foam ran along the sinuous neck that was a stream of clear water flowing gently into a soft feminine shape of her body. The hands like two waterfalls, full round breasts and slender waist of a humanoid woman, below - a swirling column of blue mist. The elemental lifted a hand and a downpour of water filled my mouth, running from her fingers into my dried, cracked lips. I swallowed almost drowning in cold sweetness, letting the rest of it trickle down the bloody mask of my face.
"What are you?" I tried to ask but my tongue refused to shape the request. Only a small moan escaped my lips and her features swirled in sudden awareness of my pain.
"I forgot how fragile your mortal flesh is, Nwalmaer." A sigh of a whispering stream, a fall of silver droplets. "Please forgive my callousness."
She hovered closer, sliding across the surface of her pool, and took my head in both of her liquid hands beginning to sing, slowly at first, then with a raising tempo. If her speech was like a trickle of clear brook than her song could only be compared to the sound of a river, rushing through the rapids in all the glory of white froth, and rainbow sparkling of fine mist. With each syllable, a stream of energy poured into my broken body, my bones began to mend, my skin regenerated under her touch, as I gasped and thrashed in her hands, and she shaped and blended the cool blue threads of her healing spell. I have been on the receiving end of the healing magic before. Chyil did it grudgingly, always considering it impolite to bother his goddess with small mundane problems. His touch was efficient and casual, as if he was embarrassed to receive gratitude for something that was not his gift. But this magic was like a spring flood rushing over the thirsty land, breaking the dams and floodgates, clearing every nook and cranny of my exhausted flesh, and sweeping away the hidden pains and half-cured poisons.
"Sleep now. I shall speak with you again when you are rested."
I wanted to protest, to demand my answers here and now but my eyelids drooped over my eyes, and I felt asleep almost instantly, unable to resist her touch. I dreamt of the vast primordial Ocean, bustling with endless life. Strange fish slid by gaping their toothy maws at me, creatures of many tentacles rose from the watery abyss drifting on the mighty oceanic currents, tribes of merfolk dwelled among the coral reefs, and aquatic djinn guarded their pearl-encrusted palaces amid the forests of seaweed. I observed the scenery with cold amusement and indifference. No trace of nervous anxiety or the slow agony of my usual dreams remained in my mind, all doubts washed away by the clear waters of the elemental magic. I felt content and ... empty, as if a greater part of me was missing. And the void left in place of truncated feelings of anguish and fury was slowly oozing over with apathy and boredom.
I awoke once in the deep of a night, floating face up on the warm undercurrents of the pool. A golden slice of the moon sailed in the vastness of the clear sky above. The liquid blue face loomed over me, her features vague and mysterious. Transparent lips whispered an incantation. I drifted back to sleep.
This time I refused to be drawn into the depth of the Plane of Water and fought the slow streams that tried to drag me down into lazy submissiveness of enchanted sleep. The was no roof to this liquid world, as the whole plane consisted of various states and metaphors of water, but still I drifted toward the hazy source of heat and light that was warming this strange world through the boundless depth of its liquid mantle. As I was getting closer and closer to the surface my memory swelled with sudden knowledge and comprehension. There was an infinite moment of truth when I fully understood all the reasons and implications behind my condition, knew who I was, and why I ceased to be. The familiar surge of grief seared me to the bone, battling with rage and despair. But even as I fought the agony that was threatening to overwhelm my mind driving me into the depth of insanity, my head broke the surface and I forgot all that I remembered once again.
When I opened my eyes to the brightness of another day, I found myself still half-submerged in water, bobbing like a dead fish at the edge of a circular pool, amidst swirling currents and froth of bubbles. The elemental was nowhere to be seen, so I took a liberty to remove myself from the pool, gripping the slippery edge of polished stone and hauling myself out. To my further confusion and irritation I found myself utterly naked, the fact that somehow escaped my notice beforehand. This bothered me not because of some misplaced sentiment of modesty, for the elemental surely could not be considered belonging to any particular gender, but because of a deeper sense of vulnerability that came with it. I looked myself over. My body was flawless in every sense, with its elegant strong limbs, shoulders more suitable for an athlete than a thinker, and perfect proportion in every detail. Still, it felt ...alien as a borrowed suit of clothes. My skin was healthy again, with no traces of burns, lesions or other damages. So were my bones. I made an experimental step - my knees were wobbly, and my sense of equilibrium completely gone after all the time spent in suspension. I wondered briefly how long did it last. A day? Perhaps even a week?
I sided along the steep red wall that enclosed the pool on my side to its other, shallow bank, where a small beach of dark sand was shrouded with green vines and bushes. I could see the beginning of a trail leading further into the crevice between the two steep walls of a chasm. On the beach I found a small pile of my belongings, including the book of spells (in a slightly bedraggled but wholesome condition), my flask, and Farheed's jambiya. No trace of my clothes, but at the very edge of the sand I spotted a bright swirl of fabric and fished out a wet bundle of silk.
I almost choked when I finally untangled the offering and spread it out before me to dry. Whoever supplied these garments surely had a taste of color run amok. The dark amethyst silk of the wide oriental trousers was probably suitable at Pasha's court, but hardly practical in the middle of a desert. The grass green aba (a sort of a loose, long-sleeved robe with vertical slits on both sides) was slightly better, but all that gold braid made it look like a woman's dress. I wondered if an elemental had a sense of humor, or she was totally oblivious to how ridiculous I would look wearing this outfit.
Still, running around in nothing but my skin, hardly seemed appropriate. I sighed and pulled on the half-wet clothes, trying to shut out the sense of ridicule. However I draw the line at a long scarf of white silk that was clearly designed to be wrapped around one's head, and fastened with an ornate brooch. What delighted me was a sight of a wide belt, and a pouch, suitable for carrying small items. The robe at least had a pair of sizeable pockets, where I immediately placed my precious spellbook. For my footwear I was provided with a pair of calfskin slippers with curved toes, embroidered with a pattern of fish and shells. I groaned upon having a closer look at these, wondering idly what fate had befallen my worn but practical sandals. I was beginning to feel like I was drawn into one of these old Zakharan tales about djinn, abducted princesses, and magical lamps that Chyil liked to tell to the flock of children that came into the temple to study their letters every seventh day.
saksaul - common desert bush in Calimshan
Nwalmaer - Tormented One (elv.)
jambiya - a curved, double-edged dagger, common among the desert folk