Tales From a Thousand Worlds

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Echo of the Ages – The Crown of Fire – Song of the Earth – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – The Weight of the Earth

The Present – 532 by the Conclave Calendar

The glare of the sun beat down upon the barren wastes, near blinding in its intensity. Under its implacable gaze the air shimmered, with the horizon wavering and at times seeming to disappear into a pallid blue sky. Beyond the hills that snaked through the deserts, marking the course of an old, dried out river bed, the lands spread out flat and endless, a place of salt flats and rock strewn fields of earth bake as hard as stone. Red earth dominated the views, with patches where it blended in with purples and yellows, browns and greys. Only the occasional plant grew out there, stubborn things of grey leaves and thorns or stone edged grass.

The hills clung low to the landscape yet still dominated it, the only elevation to be seen. Among their rocky slopes and along the sand filled course of the old river more plants grew, fuller and greener, and even the odd tree could be seen, clustered in small patches of life that stood out vivid against the barrenness.

Up in the hills, a rocky ledge jutted out, beneath which was a shallow cave, sheltered from the sun and heat. In the cave, with her back resting against the rock, sat a young woman, her eyes shut, dosing fitfully. Sweat stained her clothes and matted her short, copper hair. Across golden skin clung the red dust of the earth, streaked through where beads of sweat had run down.

She wore trousers and a shirt of simple brown cloth, lightweight enough to cope with the heat, with a rusty brown scarf resting upon her shoulders and solid, sensible boots on her feet. At her side lay a pack and a canteen.

A fly buzzed about, about all that moved in the sweltering heat. It landed on the tip of her nose, drawn there by the moisture of her sweat. She swatted at it absently, brushing it away. It flew around for a bit before setting back down on her canteen.

In the face of the overbearing conditions out in the sun, there was no choice but to seek shelter and to wait out the long hours of the day, until the cool of the night settled upon the land. Only then would Kathri continue her journey.

For three days she had walked the desert, following the hills and the river bed, seeking to reach a distance mining settlement, and with it safety. The last of her food had gone and little water remained in her canteen. Along the course she followed she knew of a small watering hole, one that she and her companion had visited on their way to find and explore the lost tomb of Ajanathad of the Hajanri. It had not gone as well as she had hoped, seeing her separated from her companion. Presuming her dead, he had left her behind. Now alone, and without supplies, she had been forced to try and make her way out across the desert on foot.

The previous night she had pushed hard in an effort to reach the watering hole before dawn, and the heat of the day, arrived. Thirst and fatigue and the dark of night had defeated her. As the horizon began to glow its copper tones, marking the approach of the sun, she had sought out shelter. Weary to the point of exhaustion, she had stumbled around, eyes heavy and limbs feeling like iron weights. The longer it had taken, the more concern had welled in her heart, bringing her almost to the breaking point.

Then to her mind, one addled by fatigue and cruelled by thirst, little able to do more than go through the motions, there came, it had seemed to her, the soft sound of singing. It was quiet, barely heard, at the very edge of hearing and yet it had a strength to it. Deep, melodic and ancient it sounded, an enduring, eternal song. Some of the fatigue lifted from her and her pulse raced upon hearing it. It had drawn her on, towards the cave, yet the source remained unseen. She had staggered into the cave and all but collapsed as the burning sun blazed across the horizon.

The long hours of the day dragged on, made longer still by the alchemy of sun and glare and heat. In time, though, the sky finally began to darken, the glowing orb of the sun settling down upon the horizon. Kathri woke. Sleep had been difficult and tiredness still clung to her, resting heavy on her mind. She picked up her canteen, a small amount of water sloshing around in the bottom of it. Opening it, she drank the remainder of the water, feeling the coolness of it wash over cracked lips and down a parched throat. Only a few mouthfuls had remained. She needed it all, to recover enough to continue on with her journey. With the watering hole not too far distant, she felt she could risk drinking it all as well. Finishing the drink, she stoppered up the canteen and wiped the back of her hand across her lips.

For a moment Kathri sat there, watching the land outside of her small cave darken, long purple shadows cast across it, growing longer with each passing moment. Strength was what she needed, and the energy to continue on her journey. Weariness still clung to her limbs and a force of will was required to even move. Given half a chance she would have remained sitting there.

The land around her held strength, implacable, enduring, slow to yield to the long grind of the years. Kathri breathed in deeply, letting her eyes sink closde and drunk in of the strength of the land, letting it soak into her body and feeding the fatigue back into it. Vast, it would not even notice her weariness.

With the weight about her limbs having passed and the her head feeling less clouded from weariness, thirst and hunger, Kathri pushed herself up to her feet. She collected her pack and slung it over her shoulder. Leaving the cave, Kathri scrambled back down the slope, through a field of loose scree, back down to the dried out old river bed below. It wound through a shallow valley, choked up with dust that shifted in a faint breeze. Old boulders, worm smooth by water when it had still flowed, dotted the bed of the river. Along its course grew hardy shrubs and bushes, too stubborn to die and too tough to be eaten by wildlife. Already the first sounds of life were beginning to fill the evening as they emerged from where they had hidden during the day, taking advantage of the cooling of the night. Insects buzzed about and the call of birds echoed through the hills.

Reaching the bottom of the slope, Kathri started out following the course of the old river, walking into the darkening night.

The smaller red moon had grown slightly since she had first set out, though still remained far from full. At first the land was touched red by it, a baleful light that made it look like it was drenched in shimmering blood. When the white moon, both larger in size and near to full, rose, it drowned out the red moon, a soft silvery glow settling upon the land.

You can almost forget it is a desert that is trying to kill you, Kathri reflected. It is like something out of a tale, a hidden world of wonder.

Something fluttered by Kathri, a whispery white thing that flew on near silent wings, as large as her hand. It settled upon a nearby bush, one more thorns than leaves, almost glowing under the light of the moon, its wings glistening. She had seen some during the previous night, an insect of some type, and had considered capturing them to eat. Her stomach was tight from hunger, ready to eat near anything. Even an insect seemed tempting after not having eaten properly for three days. They had proved skittish, flying off as she approached no matter how silently she approached them.

Ignoring the insect, she walked on, her mind focused on placing one foot in front of the other. The more she walked, the cooler the night became and only by moving did she keep it from gripping her limbs.

It took her far longer that she had expected to reach where the watering hole was, the moons having risen high in the night’s sky. Not a cloud marked it and the stars glittered bright across it. A thicker growth of bushes and trees rose up before her, marking where the watering hole existed.

She entered among the trees, the night growing darker around her beneath their branches. Long, wavering shadows were cast about her from the light of the moons. Somewhere in the branches of a tree, a night bird called out, while a faint breeze rustled the leaves. Deeper in among the trees, Kathri came to where the watering hole was. A trickle of water escaped from a crack in a rock face, dripping down into a pool beneath it.

Kathri hurried over to the pool only for her heart to sink as she reached it. The pool was empty. It had recently been emptied, and by the presence of horse hoof-prints in the ground about it, she suspected by Astiara and the horses when they had come by it. The slow trickle of water had yet to refill it, producing little more than a patch of muddy water in the basin, not enough to provide any relief.

Kathri sank down to the ground alongside the pool, feeling the strength drain from her legs as the impact of her situation struck home. She had been counting on the water being there, needed the water. At the best of times watering holes out in the deserts could be unreliable or slow to fill, requiring careful husbanding of their resources to preserve a cache in times of need but the thought that it would be unavailable had not crossed her mind.

I should have considered it. I knew Astiara would have had to return this way and there was little enough water when we had come this way the first time.

Too many troubles, too much concern and deprivation had weighed down upon her, leaving her mind all befuddled, little able to concentrate on anything but survival.

She rested a hand on the rock face, feeling the moisture upon it. A drop of water ran down it, over her fingers. She lifted her damp hand to her mouth. It did little but to remind her of what she needed but remained unavailable.

How long the watering hole would take to refill she could not tell. She could not go on though. No more sources of water lay between there and her destination. Still two days distant, she could not last that long out in the desert without a drink. To even attempt it was certain death. That left only waiting and hoping that the pool refilled before she ran out of strength.

Taking out her canteen, she opened it and set it up in the basin, directly below where the water dripped down the rock face. Every so often a drip fell into it, the splash of water echoing through the grove of trees. At the rate they fell, it would take some time for it to fill.

Leaving the canteen where it sat, she removed her pack and placed it beside the basin. Rising to her feet, she walked over to the edge of the grove of trees. From there she looked out across the moon silvered lands, the low, ragged hills that bordered the river way she followed to either side. It looked so serene, so peaceful in the cool calm of night that Kathri almost found it easy to forget that it hid a deadly side, one trying its best to kill her. For most of her life things of one type or another had been trying to kill her and she had long come to terms with it. Panic would not do, nor rash actions or giving into despair.

Fight as long as you can, as hard as you can. Never give in an inch and never let them see fear. It was an old mantra, taught to her by a grizzled veteran of the game. Niyola, a Chasakai from eastern parts, half deaf and missing three fingers on his left hand, had been one of her first friends. He had met his fate, defiant to the end, in the ruins of an Akhazari citadel. Calm, he had watched as a ton of spinning stone had scythed towards him with no means of escape available to him. Just before the end he had given Kathri an accepting smile and a nod of farewell.

Niyola had been the first companion she had seen killed, though far from the last. Some had gone out screaming, other begging, taken out by means devised by the most devious of minds that could haunt the dreams at night. Of all the deaths, his was the one that stuck with her the most, locked in her memories. She had vowed that when her time came, she would go out like he had if she could.

She stood there for some time, letting her eyes shut, listening to the breeze that rustled the branches and feeling the cool upon her skin. In the distant a night-bird called out. After some time she turned around and made her way back to the watering hole, throat tight from thirst. Picking up her canteen, she could feel a small amount of water sloshing about within. She drank it, savouring the fresh coolness of it. Only a half mouthful of water had collected, doing little more than heightening her desire for a proper drink. Kathri set the canteen back down to collect more and sat beside the watering hole to ponder the situation.

There are no problems, only opportunities. If only I was blooded of the seas.

If she had been, with the waters running through her veins, and had the knowledge of how to utilise it, she could have drawn the waters up faster to fill the pool. Hers was a different talent, one she little understood or could control.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

She set her hand against the rock face again and closed her eyes, trying to get a feel for it, the enduring strength and toughness that had aided her so far, keeping her going in the face of such troubles. She had heard all the stories of the blooded, and their powers, of what they could achieve when in command of their affinity. There had been no one available to teach her though, and nor was it wise to advertise the fact of her heritage too much for many feared the blooded. Even the Mages, with all the powers of their own, were not happy with any who might challenge them. Throughout the Conclave Kingdoms, and the lands beyond where the Mages had influence, the blooded kept their heads down and did their best not to draw attention to themselves.

Never wise to advertise what we are.

She had heard rumours of one trick though never had success in replicating it. With no reference on how to accomplish it, she had tried trial and error, to no avail. It was said that some earthblooded could set their minds free within the rock, to quest through it. The Akhazari were rumoured to be most talented at it, using the skill to seek out hidden caches of gems and precious metals deep within the earth.

I would trade all the gems in the world to be able to find water right now.

As with previous attempts, she slowed her breathing and sought to relax, to push away all troubles and worries and concentrate solely on the stone. Her thoughts were focused upon the rock, thinking only of it. She tried to reach out with her mind, seeking to send it sliding through the stone. For just a hint of a moment it felt as if her thoughts had drifted away from her body, only for the image of a vast stone wall to appear before her, endless in all directions, dark and impenetrable. Bouncing from it, her thoughts snapped back and her eyes opened.

For just that second Kathri had felt like she was on the verge of success. It had been a wearying experience but she pressed on, attempting it again. Her eyes closed and her thoughts pushed forward, but no matter what she did or attempted, she could not replicate her earlier moment of success.

When she opened her eyes again, she could feel a touch of sweat beading across her brow, one drop running down her nose. She felt more drained than she had expected and all that effort had been for naught. The water lay down there somewhere beneath her she knew, seeping up through cracks in the rock, forced to the surface as a slow drip.

Perhaps with more pressure upon it, it could be brought forth faster and in greater amounts.

Tired as she felt, Kathri could not give up. Thirst drove her on, all else but the water forgotten. Once more she closed her eyes and concentrated on the rock, forming a picture of it in her mind. The wall rose before her, unimaginable in scale, leaving her feeling like an ant alongside it, insignificant and unable to challenge it. Her will began to waver and the image dissolved away. Gritting hard, feeling the coppery taste of blood in her mouth, she forced it back into existence, locking it firmly in place. This time, rather than trying to commune with it, she instead focused upon it, picturing it shrinking before her, compressing tighter.

Beneath her fingers she felt a tremble in the rock, one that rippled outwards, through her arm and the ground beneath her feet. The rock groaned and she heard a gush of water surge from the rock, only to cut out abruptly.

The earth did not remain still though, a tremor shaking it. The trees swayed and a branch snapped clean to crash to the ground. The night-birds called out loudly and off in the distance a howl arose into the night. Then all was quiet again.

A wave of fatigue fell upon Kathri and her knees sagged. She sunk against the rock, her head resting against it’s cool surface, breathing deep, her head hammering and blood pounding through her veins. She half stood there, only the rock keeping her up. With an effort she turned about, her back against the rock, and slid down it into a seated position. A trembling hand reached out for the canteen, gathering it up, her heavy limbs having trouble grasping it. Raising it to her lips, she drank its precious contents, two whole mouthfuls of sweet water.

To produce such a treasure had been an effort far beyond her to repeat again.

It is if a mountain has fallen upon me, she reflected, struggling to keep her head raised.

A shaky arm returned the canteen to where it could collect more water. Her first attempt knocked the canteen over, unable to grip it properly. When it had been righted, she rested her head back against the wall, no longer able to resist the weight upon her eyes. The lids sunk shut and she lapsed into a deep sleep.

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