The sun’s rays wafted along the serpentine curves of the desert heat, distorting everything on the horizon, settled into a mirage. In the desert, absurdity and reality co-exist like the heat and the sand, accomplices to the sedation that is living. The sun was a worldly glutton, slowly lifting all light into its golden abyss and behind was loathsome heat. The wind, if ever it would appear, slinked quietly around the corners of the heat waves; a sandstorm lurking in plain sight; the world ready to disappear at a whim. Here was a world of gold and all of it was pain.
Then there was Alfairse, the sand mystic, who commanded the seas about him. With the slightest gyrations of his fingers, the invisible buckling of his wrist, the crack of quiet carpal, the flick of whipping snaps, all of it gave him the world. He could materialize vessels atop the graveyard of nations, gold atop of gild. He stood now at the bow of a byzantine vessel, gliding atop the billows of sand as Alfairse commanded them. Rise and fall, rise and fall, his ship never strayed from seamlessly skimming the edge of the world beneath it. He did not fear the rippling reality contracting before him. Fear, in his language, was a curse.
Tied to the railings, a scratchy shuffling of sand that skittered in his ear, was Zeno. Crimson capped his right shoulder. It was hardened and darkened by the sun. He lay resting, unwilling to resist, counting the five archers surrounding him with their hidden eyes fixated on him. Sand moved like vipers around his legs and arms, squeezing so firmly on the downbeat of the silence. The silence that was broken only by the roar of leaping sand billows beneath the vessel. The silence where Zeno stared incessantly at Alfairse, watching the faint breath of his hand, inhaling and exhaling command. His skin was doomed to redden as harshly as his blood darkened. He looked at his right arm. He could barely feel it.
One of the archers, the one right before Zeno, raised his voice, “Master Alfairse! The sun appears to be setting soon. Should we not find a secure place to spend the night before the Sky Tawls wake?”
Alfairse, facing forward, hands breathing, mind fixated, replied, “Is the old watchtower nearby, Khair?”
Khair prompted the other archers as he called out to Alfairse. They each lifted their bows and tug tightly on their strings, the piercing gaze of four arrows eyeing Zeno. The deck beneath Khair rumbled, cross-braiding sand moaning, and a tower arose at his feet, launching him into the air. “Why aren’t you going to kill me, oh mighty Alfairse?” Alfairse didn’t turn to meet his prisoner. “Four arrows, pointed perfectly between my eyebrows, could easily finish me, my best outcome being that I become a vegetable. You could bury me in this ship. You could leave to whatever these Sky Towels are?”
“Khair!” Alfairse still refused to turn his head.The grasps of the arrows, the miniscule Atlases, began to falter a bit and the rotation of fingers proved a very trying endeavor. Zeno noticed the stammerings of the fingers, and the impish grin crawled back onto his face. “Khair!”
“He’s grinning, Lord Alfairse!”
“I know he is. Khair!”
The tower dissipated and Khair clambered down the vaporizing tufts of solid sand; stepping stones drifting like clouds. “Well! Is it going to happen! Is this where you kill me? You know this opportunity comes about once in a lifetime for lucky idiots such as yourself!”
A fist crashed across Zeno’s face. “How dare you speak so impudently of Lord Alfairse, your superior and captor,” Alfairse erupted. He slammed his foot into Zeno’s crimson-capped shoulder. Zeno yelped as suddenly the numbing arm awoke in a squalor of fiery pains. “Lest of all now, when you are weak and bested,”another kick to the same shoulder, “and bound like an animal! And that he has the infinite grace to spare a boar such as yourself.” He nodded at the archer directly at his right and an arrow impaled Zeno under his right riblet. “Wild bastard, running around, untamed, unkempt, unsolicited, unwanted.” He kneeled beside Zeno, gleeing in his hard breaths and the contemptuous stare that tried to strangle him. Khair chuckled and grasped the arrow’s stem and forced it in further, making the sound of a slug’s final cry with the flesh. It burrowed deeper, clumsily striking bone and the skin of organs as he wiggled it about. Yet, as he did, the only reaction he stirred was the growing grin on Zeno’s imperceptible face and, when Khair saw this, he abandoned the arrow and struck vehemently on the impudent scoundrel that had the inch of nerve to mock his torturer. Each strike reddened and blued Zeno’s face a bit more, but these were muted colors to the glow his laughter. “Stop laughing!” Spit and fists splattered Zeno’s face until, finally, he did stop and Khair stopped as well. He leaned in, his eyes almost perceivable to Zeno’s, and asked, so quietly that the wind couldn’t carry it, “Do you understand the gravity of insulting Lord Alfairse now?”
Zeno, eyes awkwardly shapen from the swelling on his face and mouth slippery from the jaw’s battering, looked at Khair. He looked at the archers surrounding him. His mouth was unhinged ever so slightly so that the lungs could seamlessly slip their harsh anger through his cracked and bleeding lips and slap it onto Khair’s face. But, his throat popped open, his teeth met, and his eyes clamped from the humor. He returned to a neutral face, if only to see the slight tremors in Khair’s body. He looked at him a bit longer, and then said, “Alfairse can kiss my ass.”
Khair unsheathed his blade in an almost unholy swell of rage, roaring, “Draw your arrows! Quill him now!” In the shining light, almost all worked against Zeno’s eyes as the reflection of the adequate army of metal now relented against him. He shut them, expect to be met with the most exciting and revolutionary of pains against him. He wanted to witness it, his execution. He had dreamed about it. So he squinted. He was not killed, though. A coup of sand formed a wall about him and another bound Khaid’s hands. “Khair!” Alfairse finally turned.
“Is the tower nearby!” The ship had stopped. Khair trembled as he fed a humble nod back to his master. “Then, where is it?”
“It’s a small distance northwest of us.” Alfairse returned to his position and then resumed his movement of dancing arthritis. The ship levitated again and rolled the golden waves to its destination.
“He’s not to die.” The five stirred in their stances, watching their master guide the ship with unbroken focus, and then back to the prisoner, a chuckling welp. “Clearly, he’s not from here, and with the war in the South, he might be of substantial information to our benefit.”
“And if he’s from the lands across the strait?”
“It all belongs to the Silver Pretender anyways.” The five archers, recognizing that Zeno was in absolutely no position to escape, let alone to keep his own eyes from disappearing into the darkness of his unbearable circumstance and feeling to dissipate into the desert sky, rested their arms. They looked onward, even Zeno in his drifting gaze with the reality blurring into distant unprocessed memory, and saw a mighty tower pressed against the emerging mountains with many spiraling staircases and a blooming dome; the crusting stone petals curling inwards. Geometric patterns clung like vines and the stairwells crossed in their confusion, unsure of where they were beckoned. “The design of this tower, Elfel Buhma, was conceived to confuse the tribes of The Devil’s Throat when they attacked from the mountains. It would invite them to attack trapped passages and the roof would seal them into a pressure chamber. They surrendered immediately.”
To witness the splendor of violence, the consummation of industry and bloodlust in an erect gold, seemed so little different to Zeno in the haze of the heat. Had he seen it before his time, before all time, it would have shocked him, the creative capacity for malevolence. His consciousness blurred in and out of the focus of the tower, the colors blending with the everything about it and the sky continued to ripple as though at any moment it would straighten and tighten and reality would shred. The world would burst into spontaneous vacuum and everything would be consumed by the darkness, where the tower stood, actually, and it would swallow him and spit him into another reality, the true reality, if such a thought could be fabricated. His eyes shot open once more, taking in the novelty of all of it in a momentous burst of blindness, and then they shut.
Darkness. It relieved him of all. For the moment.