“Wake up, Tharash. Wake up!”
He slowly opened his eyes. A black and white mask obstructed his view of the night sky. He had seen the mask before.
“You’re back. Good. I think this is enough for today. You’re doing well, but…” the voice behind the mask paused.
“What am I doing?” he asked.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, at your age, but aren’t you taking this fantasy a bit far?”
He responded only with a blank stare.
The mask sighed. “The girl, Tharash. Having a cute girl nurse you back to health, teach you, even introduce you to her family and then having her dance for you. It’s too much, it’s unnecessary and it’s holding you back. You should abandon this fantasy and return to the task I gave you.”
“Get up,” the mask said. “You’re still in your imagined amnesia. Shake it off.”
He slowly rose to his feet and looked around. Grass stretched out underneath him and in the distance, was rimmed by a circle of snowy mountains. The mask in front of him was connected to the silhouette of a man. “I’ve had this dream before,” he mumbled.
The mask briefly frowned before it returned to its expressionless state. “This is not a dream, merely the foolish amnesia you inflicted upon yourself. Cast it off like I trained you to,” the mask said and gasped. “Oh gods, you don’t even remember who I am, do you?”
He silently shook his head.
The mask’s voice grew panicky: “Listen carefully, I don’t have much time now and this is going to be a lot to take in, but here’s the summary: I am Shadow, a sorcerer, for lack of better word. You are my apprentice. I can help you retrieve your memories, but you’ll have to stay right here. Do not, under any circumstance, return to that desert. It is not real!”
With that, the silhouette vanished, leaving him alone in the darkness.
“Wait! Where are you going? Don’t leave me alone here!” he yelled.
There was no response. He looked around, but there was absolutely nobody. Only the grass, the mountains in the distance and the stars above. Again, he had no idea where he was, but this time he was all alone.
A pair of hands gently shook his shoulders. “I am here. I am not leaving you alone,” a soft, gentle voice said.
He opened his eyes to find Zahlayra looking down on him, her face frowned with worry.
“What just happened?” he asked.
“You were yelling in your sleep. Did you have a bad dream?”
“He told me not to return here. He was going to help me remember, but I had to stay there and wait for him.”
She took his hand into hers. “It was just a dream.”
“Yes, just a dream,” he muttered.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
He briefly told her about the dream; the mountain valley, the mask and the person behind it, but left out what Shadow had said about her.
“He called you ‘Tharash’? Is that your name?”
“I do not know, but I would rather receive one from you.”
She smiled at him. “I will find you a good one.”
“Say, do you think this Shadow is real?” he asked her.
“I think you need to go back to sleep. You can worry about such things tomorrow.”
His sleep for the rest of the night was undisturbed and Zahlayra woke him at dawn. “How are you?” she asked.
“I am fine. No more dreams,” he got up and yawned.
Zahlayra quickly furled up his bedroll and threw it on the wagon behind them. “We leave immediately. Breakfast is in the saddle.”
As soon as she said so, the wagons started moving. She quickly helped him in her camel’s saddle and they trudged along with the moaning wheels. Out of the saddlebags, she conjured breakfast for two and they ate silently.
As the sun rose behind them and twilight made way for daylight, she continued her teachings and told him more about the desert. The endless dunes they traversed were called the Earthsea.
“Sea?” he asked after the unfamiliar word.
“Like the oasis, but infinitely bigger,” she tried to explain.
He looked around. “There is no water here.”
“No, there is not,” she softly bit her lip, pondering how to describe such a foreign concept. “Like the shifting dunes here, the sea has waves. They are different, but look similar.”
He just couldn’t see it.
She moved on with her description. The west of the Earthsea was bordered by the Rift, a long ravine that they would have to cross. On the other side lay the Black Ridge, a range of Blackstone hills that were home to dangerous fire spirits called Ifrits.
“Do you fight them?” he asked.
“No, we perform a ritual that grants us safe passage,” she said. More dangerous were the animals living in the Rift and the Ridge. Though it may look as barren as the Earthsea, venomous snakes and scorpions lived amidst the rocks, and packs of hungry desert wolves roamed there.
He was certain he had never seen such creatures before and her best descriptions did little more than fuel his imagination. He was quite disappointed when she said a scorpion could fit inside his boot and warned him to always check for the little monsters before putting them on.
When the sun climbed to its highest point, Bahadim approached them and told her she could not walk all the way to Nur. Before she could protest, he had handed her his own camel and insisted that she’d ride for the rest of the day. With a scowl, she accepted his offer. But as soon as she sat in the saddle, she told her brother to tell him a story and rode off with a big grin.
They rode and walked in silence, both their eyes fixed on the road, until Brother asked: “What name did she give you?” he still didn’t look at him.
“Not yet,” he replied.
“Did she tell you of our history?”
He looked up at him in surprise. “She didn’t even teach you that much?”
“She told me many other things, such as how to stay safe from scorpions and ifrits.”
He shook his head.
“Then listen, because this is important: Djinn are invisible beings with powerful magic. Every Djinni has a unique power: some command the winds, others the rivers, animals or fire. Some even commanded the minds of men. Despite these differences, all Dunn used to live in harmony with each other and with men. To men, they were like gods, looked upon with awe and fear, and their sacrifices pleased the Djinn. The appeased Djinn would aid the men in their lives.
But men changed. They learned the secret of fire and would no longer pay tribute to the Djinn of fire, the Ifrits. Men went on to tame animals and rivers, but the winds could not be tamed. But men still feared for wild beasts and floods and storms, and continued to appease those Djinn. This greatly angered the Ifrits, who wanted to punish men, but the other Djinn stopped them.
Thus, the Ifrits rebelled and warred against the Djinn. They scorched the lands to make it inhospitable to men and so created the deserts. But they lost the war and the Djinn banished them to life in the deserts they had created. There they remain, spiteful towards both the Djinn and men that traverse their domain.”
“Then, when we arrive at the Black Ridge, we will make an offer to appease the Ifrits?”
For the first time, he saw Bahadim smile. “You understand.”
Zahlayra returned, carrying a roll of fabric. “You told him some of our history?”
“I did. Why haven’t you, Sister?”
“You know the old tales better,” she said and unfurled the fabric on the neck of her camel, revealing a carpet that portrayed a small ship. “This is the sea.”
“It’s blue, like the sky,” he remarked.
“Yes, but there’s a ship. Ships float, but they don’t fly.”
She laughed, as if he had just said something incredibly silly, and said: “Only the birds know how to fly.”
He remained silent, pondering what great secret the birds could know. Looking up at the great blue dome above, he imagined an invisible Djinni looking back down, laughing at his ignorance.
Slowly the sun started to drop in front of them, casting shadows behind them. Yet well before dusk, the caravan stopped. Before them, a great, elongated valley stretched out across his sight. It passed beyond the horizon in the south and made no more promise of halting in the north, as if it would encircle the entire world. On the other end of the valley, black mountains arose in the same apparent infinity.
A narrow and steep path winded down the rocky slopes and cliffs before them. The wagons of the caravan slowly rolled down the path into the depth below. Looking down, he could see Hadiz Beg leading the caravan, carefully avoiding loose gravel and jagged rocks that would surely spell the doom of wagons, camels and men alike.
The dark mountains already cast a shadow into the valley, but the eastern slopes were still brightly lit. “Sunset will be earlier down there, won’t it?” he asked.
“Correct. But we have arrived well on time, so there is no need to rush. Tomorrow morning, we will wait for the sun to light the path up into the Black Ridge,” Bahadim explained.
One by one, they let the wagons pass them by and when Bahadim was sure that no stragglers would come, they followed. When they arrived, the sun had set behind the Black Ridge, casting its last rays on the cliffs above them. In this twilight, the caravan quickly set up camp. Nightfall came rapidly in the Rift and the arduous descent spurred the Caravan to sleep.
Howls in the distance left him Ill at ease in the darkness. They were the desert wolves Zahlayra had told him of; great, hairy beasts with sharp fangs that roamed the desert in packs. The colour of their fur camouflaged them in the sand and stone of the desert. Yet, she had assured them, they would never attack a caravan. Still, he could hear the howling from all directions, and it sounded as if the wolves came closer.
He was awoken by a scream. A few moments later, a bell rung. He jumped out of bed and lit an oil lamp. From both the north and south, the camp was beset by a row of softly glowing eyes and bared teeth. Their fur was blacker than the night sky and if it wasn’t for the eyes and fangs, he would have considered them nothing but a shadow in the darkness. In the south, they were ripping apart something that looked suspiciously like a man.
Men drew their blades and charged the black wolves, slashing wildly at the beasts. The wolves were unfazed by the assault and methodically separated a man, surrounded him and brought him down, violently ripping into him under agonizing screams. Others tried to save him, but the effort was in vain. Their blades swished through the wolves like thin air but left no wounds. Unable to recover their comrade, they were forced to retreat, pursued by snapping jaws.
They ran past him and the wolves followed. The oil lamp drew their attention and the wolves quickly surrounded them. They growled and howled at him, but would not enter the ring of dim light cast by his lamp. When he stepped back, the wolves in front of him followed, but those behind him retreated. He waved the lamp at the wolves and they immediately retreated, but quickly formed their circle again.
“Fire!” he yelled to the warriors. “Use fire!”
The warriors didn’t need to be told. They had gathered what looked like every oil lamp in the caravan and formed a circle around the camp. Slowly, he started to move towards them, but an exceptionally large wolf stood in his way, growling and ready to attack. He paused and waved the lamp at the beast, but it was not afraid. He took a deep breath and with outstretched hand tightly around the lamp, he stepped towards the wolf. It immediately pounced. The lamp disappeared into its maw. Its jaws tightened around his wrist and yanked him down. Just as suddenly, the wolf let go with a violent howl. He retracted his bleeding hand, but the lamp had stayed inside the wolf. The beast writhed on the ground, the light in its eyes flared up to a fiery blaze and then faded to darkness. Still and silent, the wolf’s bared teeth crumbled and turned black. What remained of the monster disappeared into the night.
Two warriors broke off from the circle and rushed towards him. Without a word, they pulled him along, back into the circle. He vaguely recognised one of them as Bahadim. They threw him into the circle and reformed the line.
He stumbled into a pair of slender arms that pulled him into a trembling embrace. He could feel her racing heartbeat, the same rhythm as his own. With broken voice, she said: “I thought you were going to die.”
“Zahlayra, what are those things?” he asked. His arms moved on their own, wrapping themselves around her.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. Oh heavens, what are we going to do?”
How could he answer, when not even the caravan’s warriors knew how to fight these monsters? Even now, only their ring of light held the wolves at bay. “The oil lamps,” he started.
“Will not last through the night,” she said.
He held her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Your fire dancing things, where are they?”
“They will not last half as long as an oil lamp.”
He smirked confidently. “That’s long enough. Can you get them?”
She nodded and disappeared into the night sky. He waited for a few minutes as time crawled by. She returned with a pair of thin chains with a large, intricately woven knot at the end. “What are you planning?” she asked warily.
“I can kill those beasts with it. How do I light it?”
“These are no weapons,” she said.
“I killed one with an oil lamp. These will do just fine.”
“An oil lamp? Are you sure?”
“If that wasn’t death, I don’t know what is,” he confirmed.
“Do you?” she asked.
He grimaced uneasily, and found himself unable to answer.
She frowned thoughtfully. “I think I understand. However, you are no initiate of the fire, are you? You will only hurt yourself,” she decided.
He shook his head. If I am, I do not recall the teachings. But what can we do?”
“Pray that a novice will be sufficient,” she said, forcing a confident smile. With the chains still attached to her fingers, she quickly braided her hair.
Before he could protest, she slipped past the circle of warriors. She held each of her two chains in the light of an oil lamp, creating a pair of bright balls of fire. The nearby wolves growled at her, but dared not approach her bright light. With a large sweep, she flung one of her fireballs into the head of the nearest wolf. It went through effortlessly, leaving no trace of the beast’s head. The black body simply disappeared into the darkness. She swung at another wolf and it left just as little trace of having ever existed.
He prayed with held breath, to whatever Djinni might listen, to keep her safe.
She danced into the pack, adding the other fireball to her stride. It was a very different dance. Gone were the flowing rythms and circles. The flames roared and lashed in raging chaos. Left and right, pairs of glowing eyes faded into the night. The wolves howled and growled, but all made way for the merciless onslaught of fire.
He wondered whether she drove the flames ever forward, or if the raging fire pulled her along into this path of destruction. The beasts were in full flight, and she pursued. Yet, as the last of them disappeared into the distance, she suddenly stopped and doused her fires in the sand.
He slipped past the warriors and rushed to her side as she turned around to him, eyes wide with fear. “I can’t believe I just did that.”
He gave her a broad smile. “You were fantastic.”
They looked around. There was no trace of the beasts left, not even footprints in the sand. Yet the ravaged bodies of three fallen warriors reddened the sand. His oil lamp had vanished with the wolves.
A few of the warriors came to retrieve their fallen comrades. Zahlayra averted her eyes from the grisly scene and her gaze fell on his bleeding wrist. She took his hand and examined the bite marks. “You’re hurt.”
Before he could say a thing, she took his other hand and dragged him back to the camp. There, Bahadim awaited them with crossed arms and a glare of barely contained rage. Yet as he opened his mouth, Zahalayra intervened: “Not now. I need to treat this immediately.”
He remained in front of them. “It’s just a scratch, and you will listen to your elder. I am in charge of this caravan’s defence and you will obey me in this matter. I had not given the order to attack,” he glanced down at her chains, “and certainly not with those playthings.”
“But it worked,” he argued in her defence.
That only fuelled his anger: “You, outsider, have no say in this matter at all. And you certainly have no right at all to endanger my sister like you did.”
“I did not!” he responded, yet slowly the realization crept in that he could have stopped her, that he should not have let her go.
His wavering did not go unnoticed. “That is a blatant lie and I should cut off your tongue for it,” Bahadim said. His hand threatened to draw a sword.
He shrank away from the warrior, to which Bahadim spat: “A liar and a coward.”
Zahlayra stepped in between them. “Stop it. He did nothing wrong. In fact, he saved us all. Or was your plan better than his?”
“If he knew how to kill these beasts, he should have told me immediately. Had we known, we would not have lost three men,” he sidestepped his sister and looked down on him. “And just how did you know how to slay them, monsters that nobody has ever seen or heard of before, that were far more interested in you than anyone else?”
He straightened his back and looked up at Bahadim. “One ate my oil lamp and then died. You must have seen it as well. The conclusion was obvious.”
“Upset that you weren’t the hero, Brother?” Zahlayra taunted.
“Enough,” Hadiz’s voice thundered. “Your brother performed his duty outstandingly. Son, you should be proud of your sister. And if I heard right, we should all be grateful for our guest’s bright mind.”
He bowed politely. “You honour me, Hadiz Beg.”
Zahlayra suddenly lit up. “He is Azhakim.”
Her father nodded. “A name that is earned. A fine choice, my daughter.”
He looked at her in confusion. “What does that mean?”
“Azhakim means ‘the fire of wisdom’. I give it to you as name.”
He smiled at her. “I like it. Thank you.”