Visir saw light. A bright light. So bright he could not see. It was sunlight. Visir squinted his searing eyes and shielded them with the back of his hand. The light parted, his hand rimmed with a gleaming gold. His body sunk into the burning ground, minute granules seeping between his fingers and limbs. He shifted, hiding from the sun, the sand whispering like rain as it churned. His nails collected with it, pressing against his flesh, irritating him. He tried to rise, but his vision blared to a screaming white and he dropped himself back down to the sandy earth.
His head ached, and so did his limbs. They pulsed like his heart and thumped loudly, as if there was something inside them kicking and punching. He seized his brown hair and yanked, the pain overwhelming him. All he saw still was a pure white blur rimmed with red flame. The light was engulfed by a vast darkness of shadow and his eyes slowly opened. Narrowed, Visir could perceive Arstain’s black tatters weaving through the winds and a yellow glint burning at his sides.
The Darkdweller looked down at him, his ash stained face dark in the shadow of his body. A balmy wind caressed Visir’s face dryly and the loose grains of sand stumbled speedily along the tan expanse. Arstain kneeled, his shadow lowering so that a mask of light lit across Visir’s forehead. It burned solely.
“Thought you were dead.” Said Arstain plainly. “You haven’t opened those eyes of yours in three days, nor have you breathed. Strange you are, Visir Ashless, very strange. Must have had a battle with the mists, with the Gods of Shadow.”
Visir couldn’t answer as he remembered the Divide, the blackness. How had he survived? I thought I was dead. I though I was gone.
“It still haunts you.” Said Arstain. “I know. I can see it in your eyes. I can feel it in the way you’re breathing. You did well your first time through though, I’ll give you that Ashless. I’m impressed.”
Visir managed a squeak that burned his throat, “What happened to you?”
“I didn’t make it through.” Said Arstain. “I was alone, and on the verge of death. I thought I was dead as well, lying on the black mists the fingers wrapping over me, until I was dragged out. I still to this day do not know who that person was, or why they did it. I have asked myself thousands of times why, but never have I found a reason. It makes me think that I wasn’t meant to die that day, that I would live on for a purpose.”
Visir forced out the words, “I thought I was dead. I saw a light, a white light. I thought I was Taken.”
“You would have been.” Said Arstain, “If not for me.”
“You saved me?” Asked Visir. “Why?”
“Indeed.” Said Arstain gruffly. “I went back through the black mist and pulled you out. I did not know if you were living or dead, but I thought it would be right if I didn’t let you die in that dreaded thing. I had been saved, and so have you.”
“And now we are through.” Said Visir.
“We are through, yes,” Said Arstain. “And now in the vast deserts of Hhad, where the dunes go on forever.”
Visir gulped that down. They were in Hhad, in the south. He had made it. He had done the unthinkable. He heaved himself to his feet jerkily, staggering slightly and rested his hands on his knees. Stretching out before him, an endless sea of tan consumed his vision. The mountains of sand rippled off into the distance until they were eaten by the dark horizon sharply. Visir followed the horizon and glanced upwards into the azure blue sky, velvety and washed with light and dark strokes of blue. In the center of the blue sea overhead, the lurid sun gazed down viscously on the desert, it’s steaming hot gaze consuming everything.
Visir gazed off into the distance where translucent waves writhed through the air. Then he felt it, a harsh jab of pain lance through his mind, ringing like a thousand bells at once. He dropped to one knee and clutched his skull; he could feel it pulsate. Darkness overwhelmed him and swept through his body, the mists, the unfathomable blackness stifling everything. He could not see, feel, love, hate, touch, nothing. All dead… all lifeless.
He saw his mother dead, her dreams unfulfilled. He saw Rhas, dead; blood seeping through the wood planks. He saw Ior, then Ioden. He saw him dead. He saw a spear in his back with a puddle of blood rushing from the wound. He saw everything, everyone he cared for dead and he saw himself alive and alone, failure taunting him.
The visions flashed wickedly by and he shot open his eyes to find him back in the desert. “The visions are only part of it.” Said Arstain darkly. “There is more, much more.”
Visir chocked up, and shook his head. “I thought…”
“You thought wrong.” Said Arstain, “When someone passes through the Divide, they never recover, never. They will have the mental scars all their lives. It lingers, assailing you time and time again. Did you think now that you were out it would be better? No, it is worse, far worse.”
Visir stared into the sand, and watched it seep through his fingers as he lifted it up, falling like rain. He could not deal with this pain. He could not overcome it. He felt weak. “I’d rather be dead, to not feel this torment. I’d rather die.” It was not an easy thing to say, but it was true.
Arstain rested a hand on Visir’s shoulder, “Do not speak like that. Do not speak of death like it is nothing, like it is solace. No, it is better to feel the pain, however bad it is, my friend, than nothing at all. Always remember that, even in your darkest of times.”
Visir nodded, the pain diminishing. Arstain stepped back and fixed his tattered cloak. “Now we must be off.” He said. “These deserts have been known to kill even the strongest of men. There is no shelter and no water anywhere to be seen in the great expanse.”
“Then what say we do?” Asked Visir, shading his eyes from the glaring sun.
“I say we make for the city of sand, the city of Dreados.” Answered Arstain. “The city is not far from where we stand now.”
“Will they grant us passage?” Asked Visir.
“Indeed.” Said Arstain. “The Dreadeen will let us pass through their gates, but do no be idle once inside. You must keep a close eye out for anything and everything. It has been said it is a very dangerous place.”
“Have you not been there?” Asked Visir.
“I have only seen it.” Said Arstain. “I crossed south once before while making for the coast. It is a massive city to behold.”
“Then we should make haste for it.” Said Visir. “As you said before, the desert can kill.”
Arstain turned his back and searched the dunes. It all looked the same. The Darkdweller plunged his hand into his deep pocket and out he brought a wooden dial. It was made of stone, with ancient runes inscribed along the rim. In it’s heart there was an arrow that glinted in the sunlight.
“What in the name of the gods…” Said Visir, trailing off.
“Do not bring the gods into this.” Said Arstain, “They are best left alone.” He began to touch certain runes, each one glowing with a crimson light. His fingers danced across the stone slab until the runes began to fade and sink away into the stone. The arrow suddenly stirred, staggered, then jumped to life. The arrow swung round and round until it stopped, pointing southeast.
“’Tis a Rune Dial.” Explained Arstain. “An ancient tool lost many years ago, ere the Ascension. They were used as location devices, tools used to find cities and to find directions through mountains and forests.”
“How did you coem by one?” Asked Visir. “If they were lost?”
“I found it.” Said Arstain. “In my ruined fortress, I found it, in the highest tower. I did not know at first what it was, but I had a lot of time to spare so I worked on it for ages, trying to decipher the runes.”
“To what language do they belong?” Asked Visir.
“The lost language of Runir, a type of old Alduri text. It is very different to the Ald, but still holds correlation.” Informed Arstain. “The runes are letters of the language. When they are hit, they glow and if you spell out the city or location you want to go to, the arrow points you in the direction you need to journey. Quite clever the inventors, whoever they were.”
“Indeed.” Said Visir. “Now we must just follow the path.”
“Yes.” Said Arstain. “And let us set off at once. The sun is already burning me.”
The sand sank in around their feet with each trudging step and the sun rung with an ear-splitting drone; the pulsing beats of dry heat splashing across their faces. Visir walked close behind Arstain, his stark black cloak rippling in the winds and hissing as it brushed against the still surface of the sand. Though light as it was, the ground blazed with dry flames that licked across the glassy surface that the wind had groomed.
Everywhere Visir looked there was sand, and lots of it. It wound off like waves, rising and falling until they dipped beneath the horizon where a translucent bridge rippled like blue fire. The great dunes rose like fins, ridged with a spinal bridge that fell of on the other side to a dark shadow. The shadows were long and exaggerated, drooping low and far like solemn trees. Under the oppressive and steaming gaze of the white sun, the sand was tinted a vivid orange, streaked with bands of velvety pink that glided across the dunes and vanished off into the dark shadows of grey and black.
Farther off, Visir could see the dunes leveled off and the waves sunk to a flat plain, orange and spotted with dots of shadow from the fractured patches of misty clouds. The broken fragments drifted carelessly overhead slovenly. The sun snuck behind a broken white cloud, cracked and stretched, the desert falling under temporary grey. The wind howled, spraying shards of sand against their legs and whipped with a cool bit. The sun peeked out from its curtain, the curtain of grey flung off the dunes with a whip as the fabric broke.
The winds curled off the fins of sand, the lurid orange faces streaked with writhing wrinkles, the sand pinching in rippling bars of shadow and light. Arstain fiddled again with his dial, fingering the hot stone and dropped it back into his cloak. Visir watched him every time, the arrow flickering back and forth jerkily. It had not moved from its location. That was enlightening, at least to see that they were still on track. All the time, they did not rest, not once. Arstain said that the heat would kill them if they rested. He said they had to keep going, to keep walking until there is not thought, just action, just movement. He said to keep walking or, as he said it, “your legs would give into the temptations.” Visir believed him; he just didn’t want to find out if it was true.
He had enough to battle with. Still as they walked, the lingering effects of the Divide wore on him. They were not as strong as earlier, but there was a constant pierce when he breathed, almost as if he was being stabbed. His chest felt heavy as he walked onwards, as if laden with lead and slouched by the oppressive shadow of the Forbidden Magic. He still felt it in him, swimming sleepily through his veins, the black magic, the magic of Him. It lay dormant, biding its time to strike. He hated it, he hated the feeling that part of the Oppressive One was inside him. He wanted to rip it out, but he couldn’t, he could only fight it.
The hours seemed to drift by with the wind until the sun began its descent, slowly being pulled down by the horizon. The heat began to lessen slightly every hour and the shadows grew longer and darker. The sky began to darken to the west, the watery blue inked with purple and black. The darkness crawled across the expanse, pushing the light away with the sun for night’s dominion.
“We shall rest now.” Said Arstain, looking up at the sky and the sundering of the sun. “The shadows will keep us cool.”
There on the seething surface of the dune the two laid down, the sun sinking low. The bloated sun was half eaten by the horizon, its liquid orange light oozing down over the dunes and coated the shadowy fins with a gilded film, glistering like hot oil. The sky above the sun was splashed with silky strands of entwining colors of purple and orange and pink and blue, all fading up into the deep purple expanse. The sun dipped beneath the horizon with a glint of fire that rimmed the dunes.
Night had besieged the desert, and the two moons of Erenia glowed palely like ghosts amidst the glistening stars that shone like diamonds. The one moon was large, larger than even the sun, with craters dotting the pallid face. The moon was full and whole, and above it, on its shoulder, the smaller moon arced like a sickle, blazing with red flame. They illuminated the night sky like lamps, the eerie blue moonlight seeping down through the darkness and wandering across the pale white-faced dunes.
The night grew chill and brisk, the winds harsh and fierce. The glimmering dots of white sprawled across the velvety black expanse like fine beads of salt and connected and shone irregularly. The brightest one of them all was said to be a far off world, unknown to any who walk this land. Most believe it as a myth, but there are some who are inclined to venture out into the dark void of endless darkness, to explore and discover.
Visir did not know what was out there, but the question put him the sleep and the stars faded to a complete and utter black.
Searing red light streamed into Visir’s eyes, signaling morning. It was odd, the sunlight. His eyes hurt when he snuck a glance at the sun and awakened to brightness. For the entirety of his life he had lived in the oppressive shadow of an eternal night. To feel the natural warmth of the sun caress his flesh was better than feeling the shivering flames of a torch lick at his arms. It was natural. It was what his mother would have wanted.
The thought of his mother sparked like fire, sending a sudden jolt of darkness through his body. Everything went cold and grey around him, the sun hidden behind heavy thunderclouds and the sky smeared with streaks of velvety grey. His skin prickled and his mind flashed with death. Grief and despair stabbed him with iron teeth, ripping at his heart and eyes. He closed them, and he was assailed with black mist that curled in the forms of figures and trees, all taken by the great shadow of his mind, his curse.
“Visir.” Said Arstain roughly, clenching his arm. Visir stirred rigidly and staggered to a halt and flickered open his eyes. The darkness had vanished with the wind and the chill had been replaced with dry waves of heat. The orange desert expanded before him, the waves of sand like molten gold, gleaming in the fiery sunlight, long shadows sweeping smoothly across the winding surface.
Visir rested his hands on his knees. It was gone.
“Be strong.” Said Arstain. “You must be.” The Darkdweller gripped his arm tightly then puled out his Rune Dial, the arrow pointing south, onwards across the rippling fins of sand. They set off briskly, trekking over the tall slopes of sand and down the shadowy descents. Each ascent seemed longer than the last and as they trudged across the wrinkled surface, the soles of their feet burned as if they stood on a sheet of frigid ice.
They journeyed onwards for a good while longer, the sun arcing across the vast azure expanse of silk with them. The dunes began to lessen, until they rippled out to a flat sea of crimson red plates of rocky sand. The two swept across the scaled shards of red earth, fair tendrils separating the irregular plates. The signing winds brushed against the arid flooring, sweeping pink dust from the earth and curling it up to glide across the flat ground.
“How far until we reach the city?” Asked Visir, seeing no change in the environment. “Can you tell?”
“Not exactly,” Answered Arstain. “But I think we are close enough that before the sundering of the sun we shall arrive.”
“Then I shall pray we arrive safely.” Said Visir.
“And to what gods to you pray to?”
“The Ancient Ones, the Gods of Ancient Nraivv.” Said Visir truthfully.
“Make it your last prayer,” Said Arstain, “For when we reach Dreados, it would be most unwise to speak of religion of any kind. They are very strict people, the Dreadeen. They will not allow one who does not believe in their God in their sacred halls or temples. They see it as a insult. If they hear your prayers to the Ancient One’s they will not take it lightly. You will be punished, as will I.”
“I shall see it so that it never arises.” Said Visir. “To which god do the Dreadeen worship? Is it a New One?”
“No.” Said Arstain. “They worship neither the Old or the New; nor even the Great Seven. The Dreadeen worship under the name of the God Alleh, the God of the Sun. They believe that the sun is the center of everything and is the creator of this world we live in. They see the sun as Alleh, his great ever-watching eye that sees all.”
“And when night comes?” Asked Visir.
“It is then they believe that Alleh sleeps and his sister, Allenia, comes into the sky and watches them in his stead.” Arstain replied. “The Dreadeen are very holy people, we must be careful when we arrive.”
“And we shall.” Said Visir.
The day dragged on sluggishly, the sun ringing in their ears until in the rippling distance, there was a rigid brown rock that thrust up from the ground and ripped through the velvety blue sky, stark and profound. The brown shelves of rock were laced with liquid bands of orange and tan, swirling through the stone. They were the Mountains of Hhad that rise through the heart of the desert like a spine, bending away into the west. The sandy shelves dropped off like giant stairs, grand and jagged, with serrated faces of thin plates of shattered rock.
As they grew closer, the mountains rose higher and higher, their grey shadows bending off in the distance like ghosts, the flat red sand floor vibrated. It rung with a drone and from the mountain, a deep sonorous horn thundered through the vastness. The brazen horn was soon accompanied by another, higher in tone. The two voices sang in chorus through the red expanse and shook the ground until in the hazy distance, shimmering bannermen rode forward, dust clouding behind them and red banners writhing in the wind.
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