THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 1

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Submitted Date 05/01/2019
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Shifting sands slid through the rib cage of the skeletal cow. It reminded Tarlos of his brother. He had sat to rest his tired legs on the small hillock when the loose earth fell away to reveal the dead animal. Small bits of fur clung to the bones on strips of dried leather. Its jaw gaped wide open, and its neck was bent backward. The legs reached out in a sort of running position, like a dog that dreams of running through a field while sleeping on its side. Its death must have been slow and painful. It most likely died of thirst.
Thirst.
I am thirsty.
He tipped his water bag to his mouth, using a bent elbow to lift it. He let the water only just past his lips before pulling back. He was not sure how much longer it would take him to reach the mountain, and the hide bag was almost empty. There was no water here in the middle of the desert.
Tarlos knelt beside the cow skull and stared into its empty eye sockets. He narrowed his own eyes, allowing the anger to well up inside him.
Hello Krastos.
He traced the cow's jaw with a dry finger. He imagined the sticky saliva on its once full lips. He could see it standing. Walking. Breathing. It bellowed in the desert, letting its presence be known. Its heart beat, its tail swished the flies away, and sweat ran over its back and down its shoulders. One day it was alive. The next day it was dead.
How seamlessly life leads to death.
The ground beneath it was dry and hard with the perfect cow hide impression in the packed earth. Tarlos could count individual hairs. He had no way of knowing how long ago this cow died, but the image in the ground erased all sense of time between him and the living animal.
He shook his head. So much evidence of life, or the absence of life, right before his eyes. Would anyone or anything remember this cow? Tarlos doubted it. But he would.
The cow's jaw was long and white, lined with thick square teeth that clung to the bone. Some of the teeth had loosened over time, yellowed, or disappeared entirely. Tarlos poked at them, feeling how loose or intact they were, and one fell freely from the jawbone. It was a larger tooth and oddly shaped. Instead of flat and smooth for grinding plants, this tooth was sharp with a deep chip in its side. Tarlos picked it up and felt the chipped tooth with his thumb, made a fist over it, and dropped it in his pocket.
He stood, and he clapped the dirt from his hands. The bleached white skeleton would always be a part of him so long as he kept the tooth. It was once a living, breathing animal. Now it was a fading memory. "My condolences," said Tarlos.
The desert stretched out behind him and ahead of him, and in every direction where it met with the horizon, merging in the distance with the grey-blue sky. Tarlos grew up here, but his home had food and water, and this desert outside of Kesh was cursed and barren. It had not rained since he began his journey. He lost track of how many days that was. Possibly thirty.
He carried with him two skins of water. One had been empty for two decans. Each time he thought about taking a drink from the second bag, he forced himself to think about other things. The water must be saved for when he could not continue without it.
Tonight, when I bed down, I'll have another drink.
Shar-shu-ma, Shar's Mountain, rose in the distance. The air shimmered in the heat and played tricks on the mind. When Tarlos first saw the mountain, he thought it must have been a mirage. But there was no doubt about it, in the last few days the mountain had grown larger and its image had become clearer. He was getting closer.
Tarlos's feet and legs ached, and sometimes he could barely walk at all. He was not used to having to walk such a distance. Being a Holder, he never had to. He fingered the tooth in his pocket and pulled it out, laying it flat in his hand. He was tired, and his mind needed focusing, but he managed to lift the tooth from his palm with a little effort. The tooth hovered a few inches above his hand, and it wriggled a bit before dropping back into his grip. It seemed so long ago that he was able to do that with his own body; when there were entire days that his feet never touched the ground. When was the last time he had flown? He could not remember. Before Krastos died, surely. Perhaps in the fight against Bawa.
Tarlos closed his eyes against a flash of violent memory, and his feet carried him farther.
I miss it. The wind in my eyes, screaming past my ears. Seeing the world so tiny below me.
He dropped the tooth into his pocket and looked ahead to the mountain. It resembled his tooth. What may have once been a triangular peak was now cracked down the middle, creating a V-shape. Every morning for the last several days, Tarlos had watched the sun rise, stretching forth from that V in the peak. It was Shar's doorway into the living world from the dead country.
Tarlos was envious of those who lived beneath the mountain, in that country from which no man returns. At least they were at rest. They did not get thirsty or hungry. Here in the living world, there were only sore feet, sand, and skeletons.
A small dusty whirlwind passed in front of him, and he paused to watch it. It was beautiful in an odd way, twisting and silent. He saw them sometimes when the days were especially hot and dry. He wondered how many there were in the vast stretches of the desert that he missed every day.
The sun beat down on him as he made one step after another. All the while the mountain in the distance loomed over the desert. He would get to that mountain if it was the last thing he ever did.
His feet screamed in hot pain and his thighs cramped and called for rest. Tarlos thought about what awaited him if he could only make it through the Tunnel of the Sun and the dead country beyond.
As the day went on, Tarlos forgot about his promise to save his water for emergencies. Or maybe, this was an emergency. He touched his lips to the water twice more and made a silent prayer that there would be water on the mountain.
Why would there be? The mountain belongs to the gods, and the gods don't drink water.
He hoped for it nevertheless. Hope was all he had, other than his ragged clothes, and his meager provisions.
And a tooth.
He must not forget his tooth.

He rested during the hottest part of the day when Shar was the highest, and he pushed as far as he could until the sun set behind him and the desert turned a dark shade of purple. Above, the stars blinked, silently watching him.
When the day ended, Tarlos did not bother to build a fire. There was nothing here to burn anyway. He slept in the open and chilly desert air with his bent arm as a pillow and the sky as his blanket.
The last three miles were the most difficult. He lost track of the time he had spent in the desert so far, but he felt every step of that last stretch to the mountain. The last of his water bags had emptied and dried completely the day before. His mouth was full of dry cotton. He tried to swallow, but there was no saliva in his parched mouth and he gagged on his fat tongue. The beginnings of sores dotted the inside of his mouth, behind his lips, and in his cheeks.
It had been three days since the cow. At least, he thought it was. Time was hard to keep track of. He gripped the tooth in his pocket and pressed on.
The mountain was now taller than he had imagined it was, and it stood over him in an angry brooding way. How dare you come to me, it seemed to say. Tarlos craned his neck and looked at the peak: two points that cut the sky above. The sun rose from between them, from the dead country. The sight made him dizzy, and he stumbled backward. For a moment the loss of balance brought back a memory, and he slapped his hands to the sides of his face until Krastos's frown left his mind.
You're here, came the voice of his twin brother. Now what?
"Be quiet, you're dead," Tarlos said. His dry and cracked voice didn't sound like his own.
Brittle grass grew on the gentle sloping foothills. The area around the mountain was a strange island in this ocean of sand, and the off-yellow of the prickly grass was stark against the monotone tan of the desert that surrounded it. The mountain lightened in color as grass gave way to rocks, white as bone. It all seemed alien. Tarlos did not linger. There was grass here, brittle and yellow though it was, and that meant one thing.
He heard the trickle and smelled the water before he saw it. The sound and scent woke his exhausted and dehydrated mind, and he jumped to search for it.
A dry crack in the earth ran down the foothills from the mountain, and thicker bunches of the brittle grass grew along the sides of the crack. Tarlos crouched low to it and placed his hands in the dirt.
It was dry and cool. There must be water just beneath the surface. He could hear the trickle, but he could not see it. He stood, not bothering to dust his legs off and clap the dirt from his hands. His mouth gaped, and he did not notice it. His tongue clicked dryly in his mouth. He followed the trickle up the hill. That sweet sound—it was like bells.
It led him farther up the hills, and the grass grew a mote greener there. He kept the trickling to his left, and he followed the sound of it ever onward. He jogged, then he walked, then he slowed to a shamble. At last, he fell to the ground in a crawl, and he followed still on his hands and knees until the sound was right below him.
Right below him? He could hear it. He could smell it. He could almost taste it. The air closest to the ground was just the tiniest bit cooler. Tarlos pulled at the grass and dug at the dirt with his chewed fingernails.
The water was there, and the sound was sweet. His tongue flopped in his mouth as he took scoop after scoop of dirt from the ground, closer and closer to the water.
Perhaps eight inches into the ground, Tarlos stopped digging. He could hear the water just beneath. It could not be much farther.
He dug in another place just right of the first hole. He yanked at the grass and clawed at the dirt. He dug ten inches, and the ground was dry.
He dug a third time. Dry.
A fourth and a fifth. Both dry.
All the while the sound and smell of water surrounded him. Tarlos's temples pounded, his mouth was numb, and his head spun.
Now what, came the voice of Krastos.
"Be quiet, you're dead," Tarlos tried to say, but the words came from his parched mouth garbled and incomprehensible.
There was no water here. Tarlos rolled onto his back and looked up at the split peak above him. The white rock face of the mountain was tinted pink in the late afternoon. He grimaced at it, then looked west to the sun. It was a few hours yet until dusk, and it was the hottest part of the day.
"Damn you, Shar," he meant to say. The slurred speech that met his ears offended the very thought of language.
"And why do you say that?" asked a voice.
Tarlos's heart was already exhausted, and the voice made it leap in his chest. He closed his eyes and gasped at the sudden rush of adrenaline. He was dehydrated, probably dying, and the gods had made him hear the voice of a young boy before he died. He could not guess why.
"Are you asleep?" asked the voice. Tarlos opened his eyes and forced them to roll to the left where the voice came from. The hazy shape of a small person appeared beside him, and Tarlos blinked a few times. It was a boy, a very young one. Perhaps ten years old, not yet an adolescent. "Can you hear me?"
"Who are you?" Tarlos rasped.
"Father never gave us names," said the boy. "At least none we wanted to keep." He was naked but for a white tunic around his waist. "Everyone just calls us 'the twins.' Are you thirsty?"
Tarlos nodded. The boy reached into a small pocket in his tunic and took a silver cup from it, the size of a cedar nut. He dipped it in the empty hole Tarlos had dug, and Tarlos groaned.
"Wuh..."
"Here you go." The boy gave the small cup to Tarlos, taking care not to spill it.
Tarlos narrowed his eyes at the cup and then at the boy.
"Do you want it or not? You think getting water is easy? Here." The boy pressed the cup to Tarlos's lips. Tarlos's eyes widened as he tasted cool, clear water.
He took the cup from the boy and tipped it back. Water, fresh and clean, gushed into his mouth and down his throat. His shriveled tongue soaked it in, the sores on his cheeks and on his gums screamed at its touch, but he wanted more. Tarlos ignored the pain. It was hard to give it notice over the heavenly feeling of water in his throat and gut.
After several long seconds of drinking, Tarlos brought the little silver cup away from his mouth to breathe. He looked into it and saw that it was only half-empty.
"Is this magic?" he asked the boy. His voice was a broken whisper, but at least he could enunciate again.
"It's water," the boy answered. "What did you say before?"
Tarlos took another long drink, and he relished in the ecstasy of quenched thirst. "When?"
"Before. You cursed the sun. Why?"
Tarlos shrugged. "He never did anything good for me, I guess." He handed the cup back to the boy, and it disappeared into his little pocket.
"Have you met him?" the boy asked.
"Shar? No. I don't plan to, either."
"He never wanted to meet us," said the boy, "even though we guard his precious gate." He smiled at Tarlos, a strange and somehow half-given gesture.
"Who else is here?" Tarlos asked. "Your parents? Where do you live?"
"It's just my sister and me. Father left us."
Tarlos scanned the area. There were no signs of a camp or provisions for living. "Has he been gone long?"
"I think it might be coming up on ten thousand years now. But I really don't keep count."
Tarlos straightened in his sitting position and took a better look at the boy. The water worked its way through his body, and his head cleared. Sitting in front of him, the boy was average in almost every way. He was no older than twelve, wearing a common loose tunic. His hair was black, curly, and cropped short to his head. There was no dirt on his face or hands, although he was barefoot and sat on the ground.
Before Tarlos was rehydrated, he had not noticed that the boy's eyes were entirely black with no whites. They were dark like obsidian, empty like the night sky, and if there was any light within them the light was sad.
"You're a jinn," said Tarlos. "A child of Ablis."
"Yes, my sister and me." The boy smiled again, and darkness hung in his eyes. "She's up at the gate. I should be there too. Would you like to meet her?"
"The gate," Tarlos said. "You mean Shar-shu-ka? The way to...the other side?"
"The Scorpion Gate." The boy nodded. "Of course. Come, I'll show you. Can't go through it, of course. Only Shar and Moresh do that. But you can look just the same."
The boy rose and gestured to follow. As Tarlos stood, his knees and spine crackled. The boy led him the rest of the way up the foothills until they came to a sheer rock face that was the start of Shar's Mountain.
"This way." The boy walked around a large outcropping of rock, and behind it was a narrow path that wound upward until it disappeared behind the other side of the mountain.
Tarlos followed. The boy was small and thin, and he jogged without effort through the narrow rock canyon. Tarlos struggled in the tighter places. He sucked in his breath and squeezed between the walls.
The path ended at the top of the mountain, almost at the split peak. It opened up into a small green clearing, bordered on one side by a large flat wall of tan rock. It was more than a four-hour hike, and Tarlos sat down to rest.
"Are you thirsty?" the boy asked. "I only ask because we hardly ever do. Get thirsty, I mean."
Tarlos nodded. In truth, he was fine without another drink, but he had no idea when he would again be able to fill his water bags, and he doubted the boy would give him the magic silver cedar nut to keep.
The boy knelt in the grass, which Tarlos ventured to call a proper green, and he dug a small hole in the dirt with his hand. He dipped the tiny cup in and handed it to Tarlos. Again, Tarlos stared at the cup, and he did not believe that it held so much water within a few visible drops. He was grateful for it, and he took a long drink.
He gave the cup back and said, "Was that a gift from your father?"
The boy almost laughed. He opened his mouth into a splitting grin as he hid the silver cup away in his white tunic. His teeth were small and sharp, and there were dozens of them. "Father never did anything to us except give us to Shar to guard the gate. No, we have our own power. What little we were born with, anyway."
Four short trees grew in the small clearing, and the trees were covered in broad green leaves. Tarlos guessed that there must be water beneath the ground for the trees and grass to grow so green. He wanted that tiny silver cup.
The boy shouted into the trees, "We have a visitor!"
The leaves rustled on the branches, and a small pale girl the same size and apparent age as the boy dropped down to a low branch. She hung there, upside down, her legs hanging onto the tree. Her arms fell down over her head, and her black hair fell longer still. She regarded Tarlos with curiosity and dropped down to the ground with a flip. She landed soft on her small feet and stood beside her brother.
"Who is this?" she asked, staring at Tarlos. Her voice was hardly a whisper, and her brother lowered his own voice as he spoke to her.
"He came from the desert," he said. "I haven't asked what his name is."
"What is your name?" the girl asked. Her eyes were as black and solemn as her brother's.
Tarlos hesitated. "My name is Tarlos."
"Why are you here?" asked the girl. "Why have you travelled so far over miles of desert? Tell me."
Tarlos's neck stiffened and he pulled his head back. "None of your business, jinn."
The boy scratched his chin and mumbled to himself. "Tarlos." He turned to his sister. "Does that name sound familiar to you?"
The girl nodded. "Tarlos, son of Ninsun?"
Tarlos drew back at the sound of his mother's name. "How did you—"
"Oh, we know all about your family back in Kesh," said the boy. Both he and his sister smiled. "Your mother Ninsun...sorry about that, by the way. She was a wonderful queen and a lovely woman. So we've heard on the wind."
"And your brother," said the girl, and she stepped closer to Tarlos. Tarlos wrinkled his nose and leaned away. "Krastos, was it? Oh yes, we know all about him, too." She giggled, and Tarlos felt the bile in his stomach rise.
"Sorry about him," the boy said. "I wish I could say I know how you feel, to lose a sibling. But we're both immortal, and we don't know any of our father's other children."
Tarlos did not respond. He had no desire to speak of his mother or his brother to anyone, much less these jinn. He pointed to the split peak.
"How do I get up there?" he asked.
The jinn followed his finger and looked at the peak.
"Why would you want to go up there?" asked the boy.
"I need to get through. To the other side."
"Why? Are you dead?"
"No."
"Are you a god?"
"No."
"Then you can't." The boy shrugged in an apologizing manner. "Rules are rules."
"Are you trying to rescue your mother and brother?" the girl asked. "That's very chivalrous of you, but I'm afraid it doesn't work like that."
Tarlos shook his head. "I'm going for myself, and not for the dead country, but for what lies beyond."
"The Ageless," whispered the boy. He held his sister's hand and sneered. "You're looking for the Ageless. Trying to figure out how they got eternal life and see if you can't do the same. I can save you the trip. You can't."
The boy laughed, and the girl joined him. Their little bodies shook as they laughed, and Tarlos had to look away. The sound was painful and sick in his ears. They were not human children, he reminded himself. They were demons. Children of Ablis, the Discarded One. Half-siblings to the monster that killed his mother and brother.
Tarlos said, "My business is not your concern, jinn. I'm going through that mountain, with or without your permission."
"Oh no," said the boy, and he wiped a tear from his obsidian eye. "It's not a question of whether you have our permission or not. You simply can't go through the mountain."
"I don't care about the rules."
"I didn't say may not. I said cannot. Do you see that peak?" The boy pointed.
Tarlos nodded.
"What comes out of that peak every morning?"
Tarlos lifted his hands in a half-shrug. "The sun, of course. Shar, father of gods."
"And how long does it take for him to climb through the earth every night?"
"It depends on the season, but this time of year I'd say about eight hours."
The boy nodded and his sister held onto her brother's arm and giggled. The sound sent a clammy shiver up Tarlos's back and neck.
"If it takes the father of gods eight hours to make the journey, how long do you think it would take you, son of Man, before he finds you in his passage and burns you to something less than ash?" The boy lifted one eyebrow and smirked. "You'd have to be able to fly to have a chance of making it."
Tarlos smiled back at him. "But I can fly."
The smirk left the boy's face, and the girl stopped giggling. "I suppose that would make sense," he mumbled. "You are the son of Lakaeus, after all." He shook his head. "I still don't understand what you could possibly have to gain by crossing the dead country. There's nothing useful for you there. Why don't you just go home? Back to Kesh, your kingdom, your people. I'm sure they miss you. Don't you have any children? A wife?"
Tarlos swallowed, and he felt heat rise through his throat. "Are you going to show me the way through the mountain or not? I've wasted enough time as it is. Maybe I should be going."
"No!" the girl screamed, still clinging to her brother's arm. She looked at her brother and said, "This man is driven by despair. He's exhausted and burnt by the desert. Look at him. He can barely stand. He's been so brave to have come this far. We have to help him."
The boy nodded in agreement. "I've never seen such a desperate man. You're dedicated to your goal, then, Tarlos? To cross the dead country and find the Ageless?"
Tarlos gave a single nod.
"And you know that they probably can't help you with your problem? Whatever that may be."
"That's for me to find out," said Tarlos. "Where is the way?"
The boy sighed and turned around. The girl lowered her head at Tarlos and stared at him through her long black hair. She turned with her brother, and they faced the sheer tan rock wall that bordered one side of the small clearing. The jinn raised their hands to the wall, and the sunlight shimmered over it.
Tarlos blinked, sure that as the wall began to ripple it was the hot sun playing tricks on his mind. The desert wall warped and moved in tiny waves, and the tan color of the rock lightened to a bone white to match the rest of the mountain. Small spindles of black lines crawled around the wall as if drawn by some invisible hand. They began at the ground and curved upward several feet above the jinns' heads. When the drawing was finished, two scorpions faced each other on the wall with their pincers locked together.
Where the black lines were drawn, the rock began to dissolve, and matter became steam. It boiled away wherever there was black, and soon the wall had been carved and cut away in chunks and fissures, leaving three-dimensional likenesses of the scorpions. Between the creatures' pincers, between their legs and stinging tails, the wall had melted away into holes. Behind them, the mountain was hollow and dark.
Tarlos stared in amazement at the gate that had materialized before him, and the two jinn turned to face him. They both wore malicious grins, exposing several sharp teeth. Their faces were drained and exhausted.
"Rabu-zorak," Tarlos whispered. The Scorpion Gate. He had grown up hearing tales of this magic gate that led to the dead country.
The boy and girl spoke together in one voice, and Tarlos squirmed at the sound.
"The tunnel leads downward into darkness," they said. "All will be black behind and before you and to both sides. You have eight hours to reach your destination. If you do not emerge from the tunnel before Shar enters it in the morning, his fire will engulf you, and there is no refuge from that. May the tunnel of the sun lead you safely to the end of the living world."
The jinn ceased their speech and stepped aside. Between them was the gate, and the stone scorpions vibrated. With a loud CRACK they separated from each other at the pincers. They folded outward, and Tarlos stepped back to give them room to open.
Behind him to the west, the sun's last rays were cast onto the desert in lone orange and pink fingers, and Tarlos could almost feel the eyes of Shar on him, daring him to venture into his mountain and see what awaited him.
Tarlos stared into the abyss, and he saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
"I wouldn't waste any time if I were you," the boy said.
"It was nice to have known you," the girl said.
Tarlos ran.
 

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  • Kiersten Felch 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    Interested to see where this goes. Love the jinn.

  • Miranda Fotia 3 months, 2 weeks ago

    Great start! Very good description about how thirsty he was. Made my mouth dry just reading it.