THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 2

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Submitted Date 05/02/2019
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When Tarlos set out on his journey, he had had an idea of how long it might be through Shar's Mountain to the dead country. This is why he did not fly at all as he crossed the desert. Flying cost him almost the same amount of energy as running, though it was his mind that became tired instead of his body. He guessed that the tunnel through the mountain would be a fair distance, but he was wrong.
He thought about Shar's path through the sky, and he thought about the dead country. Surely the dead had sunlight for the same amount of time as the living, as the night is roughly the same length as the day in the living world. So then how far could the tunnel possibly be, if the sun travels the same speed through the sky, not slowing or speeding up, and both the lands of the living and dead have the same length of days? The tunnel must be short, for as soon as a day on one side ends, the day on the other side begins.
But then, what if he was wrong, and a day in the dead country was shorter than in the living world for several hours? Or time was irrelevant on the other side?
Tarlos cast the thought aside, knowing that it did not matter, and he held onto his confidence. He was ready for the task ahead, and he knew he would make it to the other side before it was too late.
As he ran into the tunnel, the Scorpion Gate closed behind him with a heavy thud, and as the holes in the rock between the scorpions melted back into solid rock, the light in the tunnel faded. Tarlos was not prepared for the darkness.
This is what it's like to be blind.
He inched forward with his hands outstretched. There was no light at all, and the darkness was thick like tar. This worried him. If the tunnel was short, he should be able to see light on the other end, the light coming from the dead country. But there was no light, and Tarlos could see absolutely nothing. He walked, and he kept his hands in front of him.
Twice, he found himself walking into the wall on the right side, and he adjusted his course. A few times he waved his hands above his head to guard against low ceilings, but there were none. This made sense; the sun was enormous, and the tunnel must be large enough for it to fit.
He was comforted by this realization, and he thought that if the tunnel was made for the sun, then it was large enough for him to fly if he was careful. Slowly, slowly, he lifted himself into the air, and he remembered that great feeling of weightlessness that he had not experienced since before Krastos died. He could not see the walls or floor of the tunnel, so he could not be sure how high he was. It was disorienting.
It was always a secret pride he kept within himself, knowing how birds and dragons felt to soar hundreds of feet from the ground, seeing huge cities as tiny dots and great forests as green splotches in the red desert sands. In this tunnel, though, there was nothing. As far as he could tell, he was floating in empty space extending forever.
He propelled himself forward, and he kept his hands in front of him all the while. He tried to keep his flight slow, yet faster than he could run, while still being safe from slamming into the rock walls. There was no way to tell how fast he was flying, as there were no landmarks to be seen. The air moving past his ears and waving through his hair was enough to tell him he was advancing quickly, but how quickly was hard to tell.
There was no way to measure time. After what felt like several hours, he began to worry. What if he had seriously miscalculated, and the sun would rise through the tunnel at any moment? There was still no light to be seen at the end, so he could not be close. And yet he knew he had been flying for a while. He pressed on harder and faster, feeling the air whip past him rougher than before.
Hours later, or at least what felt like it, Tarlos was weary. He did not know that he was slowly nearing the floor of the tunnel until his feet grazed the smooth rock. He flinched at the touch of it, and he realized he had been drifting off to sleep.
Tarlos slapped himself across the face. The sound echoed loudly through the tunnel, bouncing back and forth a thousand times before dissipating.
"Get up," he told himself, and his voice joined the echoes.
He lifted a few inches from the ground and then felt that part of his mind give out like a pulled muscle. Tarlos cried out in pain and crumpled to the ground. His temples throbbed, and he pressed the heels of his hands against them, rocking back and forth on his bent legs.
Trying again, he hovered for a moment. He barely cleared the ground before the searing pain of a hot knife pierced his head and he screamed in agony. He fell once more.
No more flying, then.
He stood, still pressing his hands against his temples, and swallowed. His mouth was dry. He went to grab for his water bags and felt that they were not there. After a moment's panic, he remembered that he had left them in the clearing with the jinn, and they were empty anyway. They would have only slowed him down. But he needed water. He rammed a fist against his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut.
Tarlos took a few steps forward. His legs were sore, although he had not used them for several hours. He jogged on. No more flying. Only feet from here on.
He had no idea how much time he had left, and so he ran. He kept one arm outstretched ahead of him, the other hand pumped beside him to help his legs push faster and longer.
He guessed he had run for about half an hour before his heart made a funny rushing feeling, and he paused to catch his breath. Sweat poured down his forehead and into his eyes, dripping from beneath his arms and down his back and torso. He bent down, placed his hands on his knees, and puked. Perhaps running so fast for so long without water was not such a good idea after all.
The sun would rise any time, now. He had to move no matter how much it hurt.
He tried to run, but he had stitches on both sides of his belly. His throat was raw, and his dry nose stung to breathe. So he walked, but he kept a brisk pace, and he always kept a hand out in front of him.
Tarlos felt the wind on his face and in his hair. He rubbed his sweaty brow, feeling the breeze cool him, and he thought how amazing it felt to fly. He stopped, remembering that he had been walking for a long time now. He should not be feeling the wind on his face.
But the wind was there. It was faint, but he could feel it on his sweaty forehead, and the ends of his hair flickered.
Tarlos lifted his hands in front of his eyes. It was too dark to see. He brought them closer until they were no more than half an inch in front of his eyes. Unless he was imagining it, he could almost see the faint blurry shapes of his hands. That meant there was light, however small of an amount there was. He was almost there.
He ran, ignoring his screaming sides, his burning throat and lungs. Yes, there was a breeze, and it was picking up.
Farther and farther. Follow the breeze.
He ran for a mile before he noticed that he no longer needed to stretch his arm ahead of him. He could see the ground. The light was becoming stronger with the breeze.
A flicker of light twinkled ahead. His breath caught, and he paused to stare down the tunnel. He moved his head from side to side, and the tiny speck of light seemed to blink on and off.
He forced himself on. The end was in sight, and a stiff breeze blew across his face. He closed his eyes and smiled at it, loving the feeling of that fresh air. The light grew brighter, and before he reached the end of the tunnel he had to shield his eyes from its intensity.
The tiny prick of light grew into a tunnel opening as large as the sun, and Tarlos found the energy within himself to sprint.
The cavern opened up to a mountain face, it was almost a mirror image of Shar's Mountain on the other side. Just below the tunnel opening, foothills covered in lush green grass rolled away from its wide foundation. Tarlos reached the opening of the tunnel and collapsed. He rolled down the grassy hill and only stopped himself when he had reached the bottom, well away from the yawning mouth of darkness that he emerged from.
Tarlos panted and swallowed as he lay in the green grass, and he stared upward into the evening sky.
I'm here. The dead country.
He reminded himself that no living person had ever reached this place since the creation of mankind, and he took pride in that fact.
Trees with green and yellow leaves surrounded him and lined the foothills that led to the mountain. They shimmered and shook in the breeze, and Tarlos rubbed his face as the wind cooled his burning skin. Above him, the sun was setting.
Shar, the sun god in his fiery chariot, soared over Tarlos and dipped down toward the mountain. The fire of the sun was bright and burning, and Tarlos turned away to save his eyes. When the light in front of his eyelids faded, he opened them and looked at the mountain above him. The tunnel glowed and then faded to black. Shar had moved on, and soon the living world would see the sun once more.
Tarlos did not know what the dead country would look like, but he had imagined something grimmer than what stretched out before him. He had pictured grey skies, cold wind, and sprinkling rain that never let up and never quite became a full shower. He thought the landscape would be painted in tones of brown and grey, and that the sun and stars would always be hidden behind an overcast sky. There would be souls wandering around the place, not having anywhere to go, but desperate to get there anyway.
None of this turned out to be true. There was more life in the dead country than in the desert Tarlos had crossed. A lush green forest began at the mountain slopes and flushed down into a great valley, which was green from horizon to horizon. Although he could see no birds, he could hear them chirping in the distance and in the trees. There were no animals that he could see, but if there were birds then there were certainly other creatures in the forest.
From his vantage point halfway up the mountain, Tarlos saw over the tops of trees and all the way to the edge of the valley. There the mountains fell into flatlands and disappeared into the distance. With the sun gone through the mountain to the living world, the sky was falling into darkness. Tarlos squinted down into the valley, and his eyes adjusted to the fading light. On the far horizon to the east, Moresh rose. She was almost at full face, and Tarlos was grateful for that.
Down in the valley, perhaps two miles away from the mountain and nested in the foothills, a light flickered through the trees. Tarlos peered through the forest, widening his eyes as much as he could against the dark. There was a white light, and a faint line of smoke floated upward from it to disappear into the sky.
Tarlos made his way down the mountain. The slick rock underfoot transitioned to gravel and grass and then dirt as the trees grew thicker around him.
The birds had stopped singing, and Tarlos assumed it was because they were sleeping.
Do the dead sleep?
Tarlos tossed the question around in his mind for a few moments and then cast it aside.
Ahead, the sound of rushing water was growing apparent. Tarlos's pace quickened, and he batted away low-hanging branches and kicked at the waist-high ferns and conifers. The moon was bright, and Tarlos found that it was easier to see at night in the dead country than it was in the living world.
Water streamed a few feet away when Tarlos stopped. Whatever water he was hearing could only be one thing. He would have to see it to confirm his theory.
It was a river, and the rapids it made were in a small stretch of it. The water bubbled up over rocks, creating small eddies and white foam. The river was about twenty feet across, and to the left and right Tarlos could see that it was much deeper than in this section.
At the sight of the water, which appeared to be fresh and clean, and at the feel of the cool mist on his face, Tarlos felt his thirst more than ever. He wanted nothing more than to plunge his sunburned head into the river and drink long and deep.
But it would kill me. This is the Styx. This is the river Ilshu uses to ferry the dead to his country.
The water was tempting, and Tarlos licked his dry and cracked lips as he stared into it and listened to it bubble over the rocks. He held himself back. He had not come all this way to kill himself in the Styx.
The white light he saw while on the mountain was on the opposite shore, just beyond the tree line. The clear outline of a building broke through the forest, and the shadow of smoke rising from its chimney. He looked up and down the river, searching for a bridge. If there was one, it was not close by.
Keeping the river on his right, he walked upstream. He would not get lost as long as he stayed within sight of the Styx.
To his left, in the forest, a cricket chirped. Tarlos paused and turned to the sound. The cricket chirped again, and Tarlos raised a corner of his mouth in a half-hearted smile. He had heard nothing but birds since arriving in the dead country, and he did not know how long it had been before then that he had heard anything but the calls of vultures. He entered the forest, and he kept his eye on the river. The cricket chirped again.
A tree with round green leaves stretched high into the night sky, and the stars shone through its branches. At the base of the tree was a boulder, flat on the sides and the top. Tarlos crouched beside it. A small green cricket sat still. Its tiny antennae wiggled at his presence, and the cricket chirped again.
"Are you alone?" Tarlos whispered.
The cricket sprang away, disappearing into the undergrowth. Tarlos frowned and shrugged. Now he knew that there really was life here, and that was something he would never have imagined.
He moved to stand and caught sight of something on the boulder. There were marks on it, carved, and the marks were strange letters that Tarlos did not recognize. But although he did not know the foreign writing, he could read it.
John Talbot was here
Tarlos's eyes narrowed, and he ran his hand over the carved sentence. A cricket chirped behind him, and he stood and turned. The river rushed before him, and the moonlight glinted in the water. A small footbridge, only a few feet wide, stretched from the near shore to the far bank. Tarlos was sure it was not there a moment ago. The cricket was nowhere to be seen.
He walked across the bridge, listening to the Styx rush away beneath. On the other shore, Tarlos stepped off the bridge and looked around. A small sign sat to his right, sunk into the ground on a long post. He stepped closer to read it. There were two words:
Windmill District
 

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  • Miranda Fotia 1 year, 9 months ago

    Love the descriptions in your writing! Very good storyline so far!