I sat across the table from the too-fat man who sweated in the heat, decadently shedding water through his brown skin, typical of the cultured city-folk. He wouldn't last long in the desert, he would be abandoned by his tribe. Which, of course, was why he was here, in the city, with their free-flowing water and their rich food, away from the baking heat of the basin. Beside him stood a woman, muscular and clad in impractical leather armour that made her sweat. She had more muscle than she needed, and also wouldn't last long in the desert. But her mace could have smashed my skull easily enough. I swallowed, and tried to remember the humility of Meridie, and my oath to live by her example.
On the table was a bowl of water. I leaned forwards, using the old discipline I had honed for years in the temple to keep myself from drinking it, from becoming hypnotised by its beauty. Instead, I sniffed it, then sat back, the anger tightening my shoulders.
"It's not pure," I said, the words of the city-born Tyrannic language like ash on my tongue.
The fat man smiled, and rubbed bejewelled fingers together. "Very impressive. You see, Falah, I told you it would not fool him. Bring in the other barrel.
The muscular woman stowed her mace on her belt, picked up the barrel of water easily in an unnecessary show of strength, and left the room.
"It is a remarkable nose you have. Remarkable. I've never seen the like of it on a Damn'd, most of your kin in the city are stupid or water-addled. Tell me, do you think you could sniff out a poison?"
"I came here for the water."
"Yes, yes, of course you did, but I may have a business opportunity for you. I could pay you in money, food," he spread his arms expansively "all the pure water you want!"
"I want a barrel of water. And I want to leave with it."
"The money is sufficient, is it not?" I said, gesturing to the heavy leather coin purse that sat on the table between us. I thought again of Meridie's patience.
"It'll do, I suppose, but you should really consider my offer, you could make so much money in the city that-"
The fat man put up his hands in frustration. "Tyrant's arse, you're stubborn."
At that moment, Falah returned with the barrel, rolling it into the room. She opened the lid, took a wooden ladle and placed water in a fresh bowl. I leaned forward and sniffed it, and nodded. This was pure. Falah replaced the lid, and I stood up.
"Our business is concluded."
"No, I don't think it is," the fat man said, smiling. "Falah! Seize him!"
The muscular woman smiled, and brandished her mace.
"I am sorry, Lossn, but you'll thank me in the long run. This is an opportunity you'll soon realise is a good one. And really now, how many many barrels have you bought from me? How many times have you attempted this, whatever it is you want the water for? How many times must you fail?"
I must confess I hesitated for a moment, my faith shaken. But I made to leave.
The woman charged, mace upraised. She had underestimated me. I slipped to the side, ducked low, and grabbed her meaty shoulder. She had long legs, and her prodigious strength led to a high centre of gravity. A twist was all it took to redirect her force into the air, around my body, and through the table, splashing the pure water over her face. The fat man stared at me and the woman growled. I took her mace and rapped the butt across her forehead before she could come to her senses.
"Our business is concluded," I said again as I dropped the mace onto the floor and rolled the barrel out of the room. These city people were treacherous.
The barrel skittered across the old cobbled street, no matter how careful I was. There was a precipitous drop towards the old docks, and I could not risk losing control of this precious cargo, this time even less than the others.
I turned the barrel to one side, and went to the fish market, crossing one of the city's many bridges. The slow, lazy river below drifted southwards, and many other Damn'd stood on the sides, staring at it. Water-drugged, addled eyes staring at the flowing river. Their hair, like mine, was bleached white, and their skin leathery, cracked and dry, and their eyes squinted from the glare of the salt flats. There the similarity ended. I wore my robes of office, though none would likely recognise them, even among the Damn'd that were here, so far was I from the temple. And the iron discipline that years of service in the temple had won me kept me from the temptation of the water.
The fish market sold no fish. I do not know when the last fish was sold there, plucked out of the rapidly dwindling seas, but it must have been many generations ago, even among the longer-lived city people. I have long learned not to try to understand their ways. The smith recognised me from my previous attempts at the quenching, I am sure, but while obviously curious, she did not pry.
After a few moments, she had given me a set of leather strips and affixed these to the barrel, one at the top, the other longer and at the bottom. I tried to keep from staring at her, but she noticed how I started when she hammered the nails into the lid and base of the barrel. But she asked nothing, and I paid her over what she requested. I heaved the barrel onto my back, one strap around my waist, the other about my forehead, and went on my way.
"Good luck!" she called out to me. I did not know how to respond, unsure how to process such a remark. We did not speak of luck in the temple, only providence. I walked on.
She shouted again. I kept my head down and marched on, until she ran up and stood before me. I was ready to push through her, but something in her eye made me stop, some concern, even horror.
"You've sprung a leak!" she said.
It took me a moment to process what she had said, the city people have such a strange, idiomatic dialect, but confusion soon turned to horror. I pulled off the barrel and gingerly set it down, and saw that, sure enough, there was a trail of water droplets from her stall.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "it must have happened as I was putting the tacks in."
My eye followed the line of water droplets. They were fast drying, but they led away from the stall, out of the market. One last act of vengeance from the too fat man. "No, it wasn't you," I said, fists clenching. I briefly considered returning to the warehouse and murdering him, but even aside from the sin, it would not be prudent. City people had laws, strict ones that forbade murder, even for an insult such as this.
"Look, I can plug it," she said, "it's only a tiny hole, so it should last for a while. How far are you going?"
"Far," I said, "into the basin."
"Ah. Well, here's hoping it'll get you where you're going," she said, hammering a tiny wooden bung into the hole, then sealing the edge with melted beeswax.
"Th-thank you," I said, unused to city people showing any sense of kindness. She shrugged, as if embarrassed to be seen helping one of my kind. We parted awkwardly, and I made my way back across the river, turning northwards.
The docks of Varra stretched out into empty space, into the deep harbour that had once hosted ships, where the Untal sea once sat. The jetties reached out like clutching fingers, as if seeking something, trying to grasp a long dead sea, the memory of water still fresh in the city's fabric. And at the south end of the docks stood the lighthouse, and the long stair down to the floor of the harbour.
Getting into the city had taken weeks, longer than ever before. The lighthouse guards required permits and bribes and even permits in order to bribe them. And, while I can read a dozen or so languages of the deep desert, the permits were written in a strange, officious dialect. They are different every time I come to the city, and it always takes a few attempts to get past the frustrating gate guard. Many other Damn'd give up after a few tries, returning to the desert. These are the lucky ones, the truly damned among us are those that enter the city in search of fortune or water, for it is those who are invariably lost to the true paths.
Leaving Varra, however, was easy. The guards nod one through, the only queues are for getting pre-approved permits back into the city, popular among the city-born raiders who steal artefacts from the desert, and the more foolhardy caravaneers who try to transport their cargo across the basin. I did not need a permit. If I failed this time, I would not be returning.
The stair was a rickety construction of driftwood and old ships, dragged out from the deep desert. Damn'd had built it, many years ago, and now both they and the city people used it to move the hundred or so feet from the harbour floor to the city above. At the floor, to my left, stood the falls from the river, clogged with effluent and grime from the city, and from all the other cities it passed through. A few Damn'd were always clustered by its base, swimming in the filthy pools it left behind, washing their bodies in its water. There were never very many, the dysentery always killed them off.
I walked on, northwards, leaving the city behind, following the slow downhill path into the sea proper.
I passed ancient shipwrecks, listing against the bedrock, mostly wood, but with others made of metal or stranger substances, rusted out hulks filled with long empty seashells and shattered pots. They could provide a space to hide if I needed one, but such strategies had rarely worked for me in the past. Once found, I have always been quickly overwhelmed by raiders.
I remember with shame the time when I abandoned the water barrel. It was my first attempt, and I had given into cowardice, lacking the requisite faith to succeed in my journey. I returned to the temple, and performed my ministrations, and bore my punishment. My soul had been unprepared, and I had forced the world and the sea to bear my price, and I had wept at how I had failed Untus.
Things were different now. I would succeed in my task, or I would die. It was the only way to prove to Untus that I was worthy of slaking his thirst.
As I walked, I saw a disturbance on the horizon. A wheel-ship, one of those belonging to the cult of Hraza-kel-thum-dezanaika, those who walk the water's path. They take ancient shipwrecks and push them around ancient trade routes, seeking the return of the waters through by mimicking the world before their recession. At the time, I thought this was foolish, and that my own ritual was obviously perfect.
The wheel-ship was burning, the parched wood easily catching light in the dry desert. Around it, I could make out the shadow of raiders, some on camel-drawn chariots, surrounding the ship.
As I drew closer I saw the pyre. It appeared the raiders had had their fill of death, and now danced about the burning bodies. I had seen the dance before, and new the raiders to be Khez-rasa-gen-darakan, who believed their duty was to hedonism, and to hurry all towards death.
I briefly considered changing my route, but thought of the bung and the beeswax, and I did not know how long it would last. And besides, there was nowhere to hide any more. I had done enough hiding in my life.
A figure broke away from the pyre of bodies, small, only a child, running towards me. She was pursued by raiders brandishing nets and spears. But they were not catching her, only striking her with flails and ropes, driving her onwards, driving her away.
She came closer, dressed only in rags, welts across her back and legs. I stopped. The raiders would catch me anyway, and no doubt suspected what I carried. I lowered the barrel carefully. The girl ran past me, hiding behind my robes. She was not weeping, possessing impressive discipline for one so young.
The raiders halted in front of me, skull faces grinning, joined by a man in a camel chariot. They wore rags with bone fetishes tied to them and a few mismatched pieces of armour, mostly made of leather. Dusty white paint or black ash covered their faces, marking out skull patterns. The paint showed a foolish disregard for water, one that these raiders were known for. They carried weapons, mostly cudgels and flails and spears, while the man on horseback was the best equipped, bearing a steel sword with only a few spots of corrosion. He grinned, and spoke in the coastal Damn'd dialect.
"The girl you may keep, she is poor sport. What's in the barrel?"
I said nothing.
"Is it valuable? Is it water?"
One of the raiders sniffed the air, eyes suddenly wild. "I smell water! He bears water!"
"Whither do you bear the water?" the leader hissed.
"The deep desert. I am on a holy mission."
"Holy, is it? Holy indeed? Tell me, Thal, what is more holy than death? Than on speeding those of us still on this dust bowl on their way?"
There was no answer. The leader looked around at an older man who stared at me, mouth working, fear deep in his eyes.
"We should leave him, Zaf. Leave him be."
"Don't be a fool! Have you fallen for that religious nonsense all of a sudden? What, do you think we'll be cursed?"
"You will be cursed," I said, "and you will die."
"Ha! Your superstition doesn't scare me, god-botherer." He looked around, and noticed how sheepish his raiders looked. Evidently, Thal's words had shaken them. As they should. The leader snorted, and leapt from his chariot, and pulled the sword from his back. "I'll show you all how much you need to worry about the allegedly holy."
"Please," I said, "I am unarmed. And I have sworn an oath."
"What, an oath of pacifism? You too scared to fight? Ha!" he swung the sword before I could correct him.
My oath was not to avoid violence, but to take the water to Untus. And to kill anything in my way.
I ducked under the sword. As Zaf slowed his clumsy swing, I drove my fist into his stomach, pushing upwards into his diaphragm. He gasped and started to stagger backwards, loosing the double handed grip on his sword so he held it only with his left. I reached out, pushed my left elbow under his arm and struck downwards, snapping the arm. I caught his sword before it hit the ground with my grip reversed, and turned with my back to him. I ran him through, before spinning and striking at his neck. It was a clumsy blow, for I was tired from the journey, and cut diagonally up through his neck, the sword stopping under his jaw. I released the sword and let it fall, for I couldn't possibly free and ready it before any other raiders came at me. Besides, I did not want the unclean weapon staining my hands.
I watched the remaining raiders look to one another. At last, Thal bowed, and walked away, the remaining raiders muttering and leaving as well.
The girl was standing next to me now, staring at me with too-wise eyes. "You are strong," she said in accented High-Damn'd.
"No," I said, "I merely have faith." I took up the barrel, and started to walk, and the girl followed.
"Whither do you go?"
"The deep desert, as I told Zaf."
"Men often lie when they are confronted."
"I do not."
"Is that your oath?"
"A part of it. Where are you going?"
I grunted. "That is not a good idea. I follow a dangerous road."
"All roads are dangerous. And they all end the same, in death."
"You have a morbid sensibility, child."
"I am not a child. Not anymore. How could I be, after witnessing the death that I have?"
I turned to look at the girl, swinging about with the barrel on my back. She was young, perhaps ten years old, and in some tribes that was seen as adulthood. But the wheel-ship riders coddled their children.
The child's irises were brown, but too brown, too dark, appearing more like massive pupils, as if she was drug-addled. She had not yet developed the squint of an older Damn'd either, meaning she looked impossibly wide-eyed. Children of her age could almost pass for city-folk, and there was considerable trade in adoptees. Most of them ended up in slavery, with a scarcely better life than those living in the basin.
But her eyes looked at him, judged him, and found him acceptable. They were the eyes of an old woman, an elder who had seen the horrors of a long life on the salt flats.
"We will pass a town in two nights," I said, "you may stay there if you wish."
The girl nodded. "You will not attempt to push me away, then?"
"Would it work if I did?"
"Then I will not. My name is Lossn."
"I am Meridie."
I frowned. "I will not call you that."
"I do not approve of the wheel-ship practice of naming children after the prophetess."
"Forgive me, I did not know my name was an insult."
I swung about at the sarcasm. "I am sorry, but I cannot call you that name."
"Very well. What am I to be, then? 'Girl'?"
"I will call you 'Hraza', after the name of your tribe."
"Ah, 'the path' in my tribe's tongue. Acceptable."
I frowned again at the girl's manner, but said nothing, marching on through the desert. By nightfall, we had found a rocky hollow to sleep in at the edge of the salt flats. I showed Hraza how to dig for water under the crust of salt, and after filtering it twice through fine gauze we drank. Hraza managed to catch a krill, how I do not know, for I have never mastered the technique, allowing us what would be a rare meal on our journey. Hraza did not complain, and as we huddled for warmth in the night, I noticed she was controlling and slowing her breathing, entering the deep-desert sleeping trance. I was sure the Hraza-kel-thum-dezanaika themselves did not know the trance.
We came to the last town. I do not know its name, nor if it has one. It is sited at the last spring in the deep desert when heading north, where only slightly brackish water bubbles up from deep below. It has been destroyed and rebuilt by raiders countless times, and no single force has ever managed to dominate it. The deeper one goes into the desert, the more desperate the Damn'd become, and the more unwilling they are to share, preferring to destroy anything their rivals might use.
Still, at least they were human.
I bought supplies of brackish water, once it became clear that Hraza would not stay in the last town. I had wondered if she was hiding her feelings, but all too willing to turn to more humane comfort once it was offered. But by my side she remained. I must admit I was uncomfortable with this, the presence of the girl could jeopardise my mission, but driving her away would be a greater sin. Would Untus not despise that more? Perhaps she had been sent to test me?
We made our way through an ancient coral forest, the fossilised caves and stacks alternately sharp or smooth. The girl did not play or run about them or hide as I had expected, preferring to walk and examine the coral, studious in the manner of a city-bred scholar. She was curious, but when she turned the last corner out of the forest and saw what was beyond, I was reminded she was still a child. She gasped, eyes like clear pools of water, hand shading her eyes across the salt-flat beyond, to where the whales walked.
A Bow whale strode the coral flats a half a mile away, dolphins scurrying about its feet with spears in its hands -- I guessed them to be bottlenose, judging by their height. The whale was looking at the salt, and it started to rumble, the ground vibrating. It came to a halt, staring intently at a patch of salt flat, and the dolphins ran alongside, brandishing their spears. The bow whale reared up, the four hairy, human-shaped, enormous limbs deeply incongruous. Even from this distance, I could see patches of scar tissue where the limbs connected to its body. Its forelimbs, which terminated in huge, meaty hands, curled into fists, and it fell forwards, immense bulk slamming into the salt flat, cracking the solid rock. It steadied itself with one hand and grasped a huge chunk of salt with the other, and flung it aside. Beneath the salt I saw the tell-tale shimmer of water.
The dolphins leapt into a puddle of moisture, clicking and screaming in something like joy, stabbing with their spears and pulling free massive krill.
"We should go," I said, "if we keep our distance they won't bother to chase us." I started walking across the flat, keeping my head down and avoiding looking at the dolphins.
"Why would they chase us?" Hraza said, jogging to keep up, "They are wonderful!"
"The whales and dolphins of the deep desert are territorial, and they guard their territories well. And they hate humans."
I shrugged, "Whales are hunted in some parts of the world, in the ocean far to the west. Perhaps they were once hunted here, and the whales remember."
"Why would one hunt a whale? And how?"
"For the value of their meat, perhaps? I must admit I do not know or wish to know much of the ways of those beyond the basin. I would imagine one needs a lot of people, and spears, much like hunting any other large game."
The girl went quiet at that, keeping up with me, occasionally looking out towards the whales and their dolphins. I looking at them as much as I could, trusting that the dolphins wouldn't take too much exception to our presence, afraid of insulting them with distant eye contact. But it was the whale we needed to be cautious of, for it was they that determined the course of action for their dolphin kin, and they who possessed a great and unfathomable intelligence.
We came to the edge of the salt flat after only half a day, and entered another coral forest as the sun began to set. I stood watching for whales on the horizon as Hraza collected brine from an old pit, one dug by a whale perhaps the day before. Only a little moisture was now sitting in the bottom, together with a collection of empty giant krill shells. Hraza wanted to dig a little further, see if there were any krill the dolphins had missed, but I denied her. I wished to spend as little time silhouetted against the horizon as possible.
We entered the coral forest as the sun started to set, chewing on dried meat I had bought from the last town and looking for a suitable spot in which to camp. We needed a place where I could keep watch, one not so easily ambushed.
A soft clicking behind me made me spin around to see a shocked Hraza looking back at me, and beyond her a spotted dolphin, brandishing a spear. Shorter than their bottlenose cousins, a mere seven feet from nose to fluke, perhaps eight feet with the thick, hairy, incongruous legs included. Scar tissue marred this one, and it had lost an eye. It had been attempting to creep up behind Hraza, body low.
I started to yell to Hraza, to tell her to run, when I realised she wasn't looking at me, but up, past me. I turned in time to see another dolphin, this one younger judging by the relative lack of scar tissue, land in front of me, flint spear tip inches from my face. It clicked and squealed furiously at its companion, who replied apologetically. It then spoke in high-pitched Tyrannic.
"Passage forbidden. It knows this. Why does it risk?"
I kept my hands at my sides, resisting the urge to hold them up as I would to a human. The dolphins interpret such behaviour as a threatening gesture. Instead I bowed my head and lowered myself, not quite dropping to one knee.
"Forgive it. It wishes only to pass through," I said, attempting to match the peculiar dolphin dialect.
The other one hissed behind me, clicking in an agitated fashion. The one before me hissed.
"It says it has water. Pure water. It will give it to it."
It took me a moment to parse the dolphin's sentence. Horror mounted in me.
"Please, I am taking this water as part of a pilgrimage, I desire only to-"
The dolphin hissed stepping forward, hand outstretched. I stepped back, putting the barrel down, unsure of what to do. If I resisted, the dolphin would kill me, quickly and easily, and they would no doubt take Hraza as well. But I could not bear to fail in my duty again.
"Untus," I said, dropping to my knees, "please! It is for Untus, the god in the water, I know you know of him, I know you worship him, I-"
The dolphin kicked my in the stomach, driving me back against the wall, and stood in front of the barrel, clicking and tapping at it, twisting its head awkwardly to bring its blowhole to bear and sniffing.
Hraza laughed. It was a spiteful laugh, and I saw she was smiling. The dolphin looked up, and the older one skipped back suddenly, spear held out at her.
"Why does it bark?" The younger dolphin squealed,
"They said you'd fall for it, and you have! Ha! Haha!"
The dolphin stared at her in confusion, but despite the fixed smile, I could tell it was growing frustrated.
She looked to me, and suddenly looked shocked, and put a hand over her mouth. "I... I'm sorry," she said to me, "it was so funny, I couldn't help it."
The dolphin spun to face me jabbing out with its spear "Why? Why does it bark? What is... 'funny'?"
While I was still parsing the sentence, Meridie -- Hraza I mentally corrected myself -- spoke again: "They... the ones out on the salt flats, the taller dolphins..."
"Bottlenose?!" the dolphin hissed, as did its partner.
"Y-yes, I think that's what they were... They told us to give you this water. I'm not sure why."
"Give us... water? But why hide? Why not gift itselves?"
The one eyed dolphin squealed, "Not gift! Trick!"
The first dolphin staggered back, glaring at the barrel, then at me. "Poison! Trick! Kill it!" the dolphin stabbed out at me with the spear, I reflexively raised my hands, and yelled at it to wait.
It did, which surprised me. I swallowed, trying to think of something.
"You... live in the coral forest, do you not?"
The dolphin stared, not acknowledging if I was right or wrong.
"There are... others beyond the coral forest. If you let us pass, our poison passes as well."
The dolphin stared, then clicked and squealed. "They will die! The inner flats will die!"
"And you and your whale could spread out."
"It will be honoured!"
"Oh yes, It will definitely be honoured. But we will need to pass through safely."
"Protect!" the dolphin said, and suddenly turned back, starting to walk down the narrow pass. It spun around, staring at me quizzically, and gestured. "Come!" it hissed.
I swallowed, stood up, and shouldered my burden, nodding to a relieved looking Hraza.
The dolphins were blessedly laconic, and allowed us to sleep in a hollow when they saw that we shivered and grew weary with the night. The creatures lay awkwardly on their fronts and dozed next to each other. They awoke early, and kicked me awake before dawn, the younger one eager for us to be on our way. As the sun rose over the horizon to my right, I looked out over the last salt flats, where more whales stood on the horizon.
And before me lay my goal, the tumble of rocks marking Untus' labyrinth. I nodded my thanks to to the dolphins, who stared at me in bafflement, and together Hraza and I made our way out into the final salt flats.
We had been walking for a few hours when Hraza suddenly yelped, gesturing at the barrel. I pulled it off and saw that the beeswax plug had failed, leaving a trail of water droplets behind us. I could have wept. I quickly upended the barrel and found the other side was not leaking, but it would be more awkward to carry. But there was nothing for it.
I grabbed the barrel around the side and hefted it to chest level. All I could see was the side of the barrel. "You must be my eyes, Hraza. Can you do that?"
"Yes," she said.
And so I walked across the baking sands, the holes in my moccasins worn ever wider.
"We must be careful," I gasped, "the whales my try to intercept us. Keep watch."
"I will," Hraza said.
Hours passed. My arms grew numb. I called out to Hraza, but heard no response. Reluctantly, I started to lower the barrel, knowing that doing so would only make it harder to lift again.
And then I froze.
Hraza was standing with her back to me, her face mere feet from the nose of a blue whale, surrounded by orcas wielding massive steel halberds and axes. The orcas were easily 20 feet tall, even with their slightly stooped stance, while the whale... I could not process the size of the whale. It was larger than my temple.
Hraza held a hand out, almost touching the whale's nose. The whale stared at her, and then I felt its vast intelligence shift in focus to look at me. My world crumbled around me, all thought deserted me, the entire world became that creature's evaluating gaze.
I was unworthy. How could I be worthy? I fell to my knees. I felt the earth move, felt the whale's steps. I came towards me.
And walked over me, that massive belly twenty feet from my head, yet feeling close, too close. The back legs passed over me, meaty feet stomping so close to me, and then the fluke ran over my head, capable of swatting me in an instant, of ending my life almost carelessly.
And so the whale passed over me, and the orcas left, following their lord into the salt flats. The walls of the well of Untus towered over me.
"It's okay," Hraza said, "they said we can pass."
"You," I said, "are not Hraza, are you?"
"I told you," the girl said, "I am Meridie."
I prostrated myself, about to ask for forgiveness, when the girl snorted and demanded I get up.
"You have a purpose out here in the desert, Lossn. Here and beyond. Go, into the well. Go where I cannot follow."
I swallowed, and lifted the barrel in my arms, stumbling on in exhaustion. My muscles cried out in despair, threatening rebellion. It was all too much. Far too much.
I stumbled over the threshold, face to face with the last guardian of Untus.
I had never seen them before. I had never passed beyond the inner flats before, never crossed the threshold to the well. I knew of them only from the old legends, told by those who had failed before me.
The thing was twenty feet long, with a chitinous body, heavily armoured in the manner of the city folk, with armoured plates covering its flanks and stretching to the desert floor. Its head was a simple sphere and bore black pits in place of eyes, with antennae switching around. Its body grew narrow towards the rear, where its tail terminated in a trident.
The creature's antennae touched my face, and it reared up suddenly, huge jaws wide. I leapt back, almost falling, almost dropping the barrel, but the thing kept coming.
I would not be defeated, not so easily. I leapt to one side and managed to get a foot on the thing's back, and I ran up an armoured plate onto its back. I ran along the unsteady plates as the creature tried to throw me off, and landed beside the thrashing tail. I ran on, to where I could see a small, flat, pool of water, my destination.
Pain seared down my left leg, and I saw that the trident and torn through robes and skin, slicing deep into my thigh. I staggered forwards, and felt another slash across the back of my calf, felt the tension as the hamstring snapped back. My leg no longer answered my orders, and I fell forwards, inches from the edge of the pool.
I looked back, saw the trilobite turn and start heading towards me. The barrel was still whole, turned on its side. I crawled forwards and shoved it as hard as I could. The guardian was close now, but I couldn't risk turning my back. I pulled myself up onto the barrel, and then slid as I pushed it.
The barrel rolled, water rushing out from the leak, fell down a step before the well, and smashed. What little water that was left lay slick among the stones. My head hit the stone. I waited for death.
It did not come.
I turned and looked over my shoulder, to see the trilobite frozen, a mere statue. I suddenly found it unbelievable that the creature had chased me, and wondered if the whole encounter had been some illusion.
With the relief came the pain. I had dreamed none of this.
I turned back to see a massive, coral encrusted hand sticking out of the water. Before I could respond, my god grabbed me about the limbs and dragged me into the water.
I panicked, felt myself starting to drown, felt the water rush into my lungs. I opened my eyes to find the water impossibly clear, and to see a massive face made of coral staring at me, seaweed and barnacles encrusting his holy countenance, shining eyes evaluating me, just as the whale had.
And then I realised I was not dead.
You shall not drown, said the impossible voice that resounded through my skull. I tried to prostrate myself, finding this impossible in the water, and so averted my eyes.
Lossn, look at me. We don't have time for this. We have wasted too much time already.
I looked up, feeling tears well up in my eyes, then feared polluting the waters of Untus. But then, had I not polluted them already, clad as I was in these filthy robes?
You have duties.
"They are complete, my lord," I went to say in my head.
Then you have new duties. There is no rest for holy men, not in this world, and certainly not any more. I have tasks for you to perform. You are the last of your temple, correct?
I swallowed. "All dead," I whispered "raiders in the night, smothered the old men as they-"
I know. And there is a special punishment you must deliver to them.
Untus massive fist was upraised before me, and from between his knuckles, I saw a length of coral.
My voice is returned to me, you have found her. But I have need of more direct intervention. I have need of a sword. This shall be you, Lossn, forged in the desert sun, tempered by tragedy. You must go beyond this place, even beyond this desert. There is more at stake than you suspect. Grasp my sword.
I reached out, fingers tentatively wrapping themselves around the sword hilt between the god's knuckles. I drew back, and the sword slid easily among the seaweed and anemones and brightly coloured fish, revealing a blade of dull, sharp coral.
Go, Untus whispered My thirst needs no slaking. The test was a foolish one, dreamed up by men who deafened themselves with perceived virtue. But this is the true task that lies before you.
"My lord," I whispered, "I am tired, my flesh is weak, I-"
Your will is strong. That is all that matters.
I climbed out of the well, my legs healed by some holy providence of the sea god, the sword in my hand. Meridie met me at the threshold, saw how I was remade, reforged.
I failed in my old mission. I would not fail in my new one.
©September 2017 Sam Beaven
Sam Beaven lives and writes in North Wales. This is his first published work of fiction.