A thousand years ago . . .
The sun pushed mercilessly down on Habif. The light, the heat, were like a weight, pressing his withered body to the dunes. Sand abraded his throat and his parched tongue thickened by the second. He believed he would choke on his own tongue before the sun could kill him. His eyes were nearly too dry to blink and he knew he would soon face his end.
If he could have spoken, Habif would have invoked the walking gods of the desert to bring him succor or end his life quickly. The sand and the sun had desiccated him beyond the capacity for utterance, however, and so he focused on moving. He was not certain where he was going, or why he was challenging the inevitable, but when he could string thoughts together coherently he tried to keep the sun to his right – he believed the caravan had been closest to the southern edge of the desert, and the setting sun (thank the walking gods it was setting!) would guide his path.
* * *
Habif did not know how long he had been unconscious. His long walk had continued unabated beyond his ability to recount, and then he found himself half-buried in silvery sand under the bulbous globe of the moon. He was shivering and could not feel his fingers or toes. In the distance, a fragile island of rock broke the surface of the silver sea of sand. Habif tried to gauge the direction of the rock from the stars, but his mind was not up to the effort. After several false starts, Habif lurched forward, half-crawling, toward the outcropping.
Movement brought warmth, something he would have sworn he’d had more than enough for the rest of his life just a few hours before, but which was now in desperately short supply. Habif did not know time or distance; he knew icy desolation and the raw discipline of one foot, one hand, one foot, one hand.
Habif did not know he had reached his destination until his hand refused to sink into the sand and something sharp and hard pressed against his palm. The rock was warmer than the sand, jealously holding the day’s warmth. Habif dragged himself bodily onto the rock and soaked up what heat he could.
A sharp kick to the side attracted Habif’s attention. He started vacantly up and eventually noticed the dark figure standing over him. His thinking gained momentum and he perceived two more shapes behind his assailant.
“Guuuuuuh,” he croaked, any hope of speech a distant memory. The kicker stared down at him. In the shadowy depths of a hood Habif saw a face, not quite a human face: darker, finer, more delicate, more cerebral, more cunning. There was no sympathy in the eyes, no concern – Habif saw calculation and a hint of cruelty.
His vision passed out of focus again and the figure blurred into near formlessness again. “El’quellethin qabar?” asked the shape.
Habif tried to speak, tried to beg for water, but his throat betrayed him. The best he could manage was a croaking rasp.
“Ta’al quraysh,” spat one of the other forms in disgust.
“Qab qa’tab shirook,” responded the first form icily. His voice took on an impossible resonance and his hands moved quickly and fluidly through the air, their motion trailed by a dim field of violet light that Habif was beyond perceiving. The form laid a hand on Habif’s forehead, a cold hand even in the night chill, and his body jerked. His beleagured mind felt a shock and then knew the ravages of an invader.
Thoughts poured out of Habif and into the voracious curiosity of his malefactor. He recalled the caravan, a dangerous and in retrospect stupid idea to circumvent the sea freight cartel. Friends, family, guards, and Habif. He had made the trip twice before, once under desperate circumstances and the first time as a rite of passage before traveling to the great madrasa for his schooling. This last trip had been uneventful until Habif strayed mere steps from the caravan to relieve himself. The sun beat down on the anvil of the sand, and he could not see the caravan though he knew it to be close. He could hear it easily enough, but the direction of the sound was not clear. By the time Habif thought to call out, his traveling companions, who had yet not noticed his absence, heard only indistinguishable desert sounds to which they paid no mind. Habif, abandoned and disoriented, began his trek, his mind racing to find an impossible solution.
As his thoughts bled out, he caught a glimpse of his invader’s mind. He saw caverns, vast caverns, caverns big enough to contain the whole dome of the sky. Torches and unnatural glows lit the caverns, casting deep shadows in some places and blazing blindingly in others. Many beings marched back and forth. Habif heard sounds of battle, smelled blood, saw savage weapons cleave limb from trunk. The fighting ended. The being standing over him and many others like him traveled, moving through the great caverns, seeking something, fleeing something, unwavering in their faith and unblinking in their clear-eyed vision of destiny. They trekked through tunnels, a people united. Sometimes the tunnels sloped upward.
Habif was barely conscious. He could not process the torrent of thoughts; he simply experienced images, smells, sounds. This people, this nation, did not want to be found, not yet, not when they were first breaching the surface of their new domain. He knew that. And then he knew the last thing – he knew the slice of the knife, and though his body had been burned dry by the desert he soaked the rock with his blood. For many years the stain remained, a rusty streak on the dark stone, but in time the stand scoured it clean.