The Rains Will Come: The Ku'Azheron Sacrifice
Joh strode down the dusty road of Ku’Azheron with his hands in his pockets. His shoulder-length black hair clung to his sweat-saturated shirt.
The road that winded through the town was bustling. The men wore tan robes and their long, wiry beards dangled beneath their chins. The women wore flowing, black burkas. Joh could only see their eyes as they looked at the stranger to their land. Joh smiled to them.
“Well, hello!” Joh said, cheerfully to a pair of women walking passed him.
One woman nodded. As her youthful eyes bashfully looked at him the other woman with weathered wrinkles at the corner of her eyes pulled her away. Joh paused a moment to look at the girl as she was dragged away. Her eyes were turquoise, an eye color he had never seen before.
“I’m staying in the inn…” Joh frowned, trying to remember the name of the inn he and his friend were staying in. By now the women had swam through the sea of black and tan robes. “Nice talking to ya!”
Joh sighed and then turned back around. He adjusted the longsword at his side. The metal hilt was hot from the sun high above him. As he ran his thick fingers through his black hair more sweat fell into his face.
“If it gets any hotter here, I swear I’m gonna pass out!” he said.
He looked around to nearby Ku’Azherons staring back at him. Their expressions were scorching. Joh only smiled to them.
“How about this weather?” he said. “Hot today, ain’t it?”
The Ku’Azherons looking back at him didn’t reply or make any movements. Only their thick eyebrows sank lower over their eyes.
“Wow, Sampon, you picked a heck-of-a-place to rest for the night,” he said to himself. He glanced back to the Ku’Azherons. “Maybe they don’t like handsome guys like me.”
“They don’t like Northerners,” a rough, high-pitched voice said within the throng of people to his right.
Joh turned his head and peered into the sea of flowing robes. The voice, however, didn’t allow the owner to be found.
“Who said that?” Joh said. He approached a towering Ku’Azheron with black eyes and a thick, dark beard. “Was it you?”
Joh stood well below the man’s chin. The towering man, however, only glared at him with his massive arms folded across his chest.
Joh went from the towering man to one even taller. Joh stood with his hands against his hips, craning his neck to look up at him.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Joh said. “Ya know something?” He poked the man’s forearm with his index finger. “You got a lotta nerve messin’ with me! I fought in wars you only dreamed about! Yeah, I ate oversized ogres like you for breakfast!”
The man bared his yellow, broken teeth and released a low growl. His black eyes seemed to bore holes into Joh as his folded arms came undone and flexed at his sides. The other man Joh had first approached also took on a defensive stance and, with two long strides, stood behind him. Joh could feel his eyes burning into him as well.
Joh slowly looked over his shoulder to the first man, smiled, and then turned back to the second man glowering before him. He could feel their rank breath on him like two big bulls ready to clash horns.
“You know,” Joh said, scratching his head, “maybe I was wrong.” He began to slink away.
The two men snatched Joh by the front of his tunic and lifted him into the air. The surrounding villagers suddenly paused from what they were doing and gathered closer to the melee. Some of the younger men raised their hands into the air and shouted with joy and excitement. Other villagers called out various yells in their dialect, but even if Joh was trying to pay attention to what they were saying, he couldn’t understand any of it.
He was being hurled across the street.
For a moment, as he sailed through the air, Joh relished the cool breeze that wafted around him. Flying was serene. He guessed that that was how a bird felt when it took flight for the first time. The sand-covered ground whizzed below him as if he stood still and everything flowed quickly beneath him.
And then he hit a frail, wooden door of a mud building, crashing through it.
Accompanying his throbbing head were waves of dizziness and blurred vision. Joh stood up and tried to maintain his balance by holding his arms out. His eyes went wide in astonishment at the vision that overcame him.
At first he thought there were several nude women standing before him, each clutching a black robe in their hands. Each one looked surprisingly similar and had matching expressions on their faces.
“Hold on,” Joh said. “That hurt a bit!”
He placed both hands on the sides of his head and, as Joh’s eyes focused, he noticed that it was actually only one woman who stood in the small room clutching a black robe against her skin. It was the woman with turquoise eyes.
She stared at where the door used to be and then at Joh, who was dusting himself off.
Joh smiled at her and then waved. She smiled coyly and waved back before pulling her black robe up along her long, tanned legs and then over her almond-colored shoulders. She sat down upon a chair and draped one leg over the other with her hands folded on her knee as if she was going to accept a proposal.
Joh knelt before her and reached out for her hand. Her palm was moist, but cool to the touch. The dry desert heat seemed chilled by her hand, her eyes, and her smile.
“Sorry about the door,” Joh said. “I didn’t know the men in this area were so strong! If you want, I can pay for the—“
The woman leaned forward and kissed him. Her lips were warm and inviting and her tongue sweet and intoxicating. Joh hadn’t kissed a woman like this before. The room had suddenly become much warmer than the outside ever could. He heard his heart pounded in his chest. Or was it thudding of many big feet?
“I’d love to stay and continue our conversation, but I have to go,” Joh said. He bolted toward opening where a frail, wooden door once stood.
He stopped to look over his shoulder one last time. Her smile almost ensnared him. It was only the loud shouts of the men that stood well over a foot above his head that made him swiftly dash away.
Joh sprinted down the hot, sandy streets of the village, turning into narrower lanes. He turned abruptly into an alley between two tall, mud buildings. Below an awning, set between wooden posts, was a one-eyed peddler and his rickety cart.
“Why the rush, Northerner?” the peddler said in a high-pitched, scratchy voice.
Joh stared at the peddler with the black eye patch. He paused a moment to catch his breath and leaned against one of the buildings.
“Was that you earlier?” Joh said, pointing over his shoulder toward the direction he had ran from. “That was you, wasn’t it?” Joh tried his best to mimic the voice he had heard earlier. “They don’t like Northerners.”
The peddler looked at him with his milky white eye, studying the short man’s features. Then, to Joh’s surprise, the peddler moved the eye patch to the other side and stared at him with a scarred, vacant socket.
“None in Ku’Azheron likes outsiders,” the peddler said. “What brings you here in the first place?”
Joh scratched his head. Either there was a welt forming where he collided with the door, or the sweat was giving his scalp a terrible itch. Or maybe it was fleas. He didn’t know for sure.
“My friend and I got lost in the desert,” he said. “I said to him that I wished someone would come and help us out, since we’re stuck out here in the middle of the desert with little water and no horses to ride, and then we saw this town over the horizon through some haze and headed toward it. At first we thought it was a mirage and we didn’t—“
“You talk too much!” the peddler burst out. “All I wanted was a simple answer. If I wanted the story of your life, I would have offered you tea and cookies!”
“Do you have any cookies?” Joh asked hopefully.
“No!” the peddler said. Without looking down his hands searched for something in his rickety cart. “Would you like some meat?” He held up a chicken leg and smiled. “Only seven natars!”
“Ah—no,” Joh said. “Thanks anyway, but that chicken leg looks like it was left in that cart a little too long.”
He adjusted his longsword and inspected it carefully searching for any signs of damage from his earlier encounter, and then looked back at the peddler.
“Actually, not all of you in this town are unfriendly to Northerners.”
“Ah, the young woman who kissed you!” the peddler said with a wide smile, showing a handful of brown teeth. “Her kiss ensnared you, didn’t it? You’re enraptured by her beauty, aren’t you? Perhaps you’re not as bad we think!” He put the chicken leg down into his cart. “Don’t you know it’s bad luck to be kissed by a woman who is to be put to death?”
“Bad luck!” Joh exclaimed. “How did you know she kissed me? And why’s she gonna be put to death? She wasn’t even in a prison cell!” He looked into the peddler’s vacant, scarred eye-socket, wrinkling his nose. “Could ya…put the eye patch over on the other side…and uh…cover that up? Please?”
“I cannot see you for who you really are with that eye,” the peddler said. “That eye only sees the outside of person. This one—“ he raised a gnarled, long-nailed finger to the vacant socket, “—can see the intentions of a person long before he even thinks it.”
“Wow, that’s really great, little guy, but can we get back to the girl?” Joh said. “I wanna know why she’s being put to death.”
The peddler stared at him for a moment. It was long enough to almost make Joh repeat what he last said, but the old man spoke.
“Every year a sacrifice must be made to make the rains come. This is a farming village. We harvest a lot of grain to feed the many livestock we have and our families. The rains are important to our livelihood.” The peddler’s hands rummaged through the contents of his cart. “If we don’t get the rains, we’ll have no food.” He held something Joh couldn’t distinguish in his wrinkled hand. “Lizard foot? It’s only twelve natars?”
Joh wrinkled his nose again. “That looks just like the rotten chicken foot,” he said. “No thanks. I just ate anyways. Why does the girl have to be killed?”
The peddler let the lizard foot drop into the cart. “So the rains will come.”
“But why does she have to die?”
“So the rains will come.”
“Yeah, I got that the first time,” Joh said, his voice almost in anguish. “But-what’s-the-purpose-of-her-death?” He used his hands, gesturing sporadically as if that would emphasize his question better.
The peddler copied his movements. “So-the-rains-will-come.”
Joh threw his arms into the air in frustration. “Is there some god that comes out of the sky to eat her?” he asked. “Does he piss rain down upon your stupid crops? Is that how you get the freakin’ rain around here?”
The peddler studied him with his gnarled brow drooped, making his vacant socket seem to close. It made his face look all the more sinister. His scrawny arms sank deep into his cart as he kept staring at him.
Joh had difficulty returning his gaze. “You’re kinda scaring me,” he admitted.
He peered around the corner of the building, wondering why the mob of people-tossers hadn’t caught up to him yet. He saw many tan-robed Ku’Azherons, but he couldn’t distinguish one from the other in the first place and turned back to the peddler.
“Barahvah, our Rain Spirit, is not pleased with us,” the peddler said, still rummaging through his wares. “Since our people have left the mountains long ago, Barahvah has not brought the rains. He insists that we must prove our loyalty to him with a special sacrifice and he’ll release the rains for our crops.”
Joh stared at him for a moment, sucking air through his teeth. “That has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” he said. “How much opium have we had this afternoon, Gramps?”
“You Northerners know nothing of religion and loyalty to one’s god!” The peddler spat. “It shows why your brains are so small. If you shake your head, it might sound like a nut in a clay jar!”
Joh resisted the urge to shake his head. “You know…” he began, but couldn’t think of a good enough retort. He watched the peddler continue to look at him while his hands were buried beneath boxes in his cart.
“You wish to save her,” the peddler said, without taking his gaze off him. “You don’t want to see her die.”
Joh blew air sharply through his closed lips, making a flatulent sound. “Please, I just met her,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you want the adventure!” The peddler narrowed his socket inhumanly. “You want excitement! You want to be daring and win the girl! You would do anything to rescue her!” He pulled up a small red jewel with a wide grin on his wrinkled face. “How about the Tear of Drago? Only fifty natars!”
Joh studied the jewel in the peddler’s gnarled fingers. It appeared to be a ruby of some kind. “What’s it do?” he asked.
The old peddler shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s a good luck charm.”
“I’ll take it!” Joh handed the peddler a sack of gold coins.
The peddler looked down at the jingling change in his hand. “This is worth many times what I—“
“Nevermind,” the peddler said with a wide grin. “Have a good day!”
“Wait a minute!” Joh said. “What about the girl? How can I save her?”
But shouts of the Ku’Azherons behind him gained his attention for a moment. Several men were fighting with long, wooden sticks. Joh guessed they were only sparring. He turned back to the peddler. He was gone, and so was his cart.
“Now where’d that little guy go?” Joh said, looking around the dusty streets. He held the red jewel toward the sky and inspected its luster. “What a beautiful rock!” He turned toward the direction of the sun. It was well beyond half-day. “I should get back to the inn. Sampon’s probably jumping through the roof with anger.” He paused and smacked himself in the face. “Stop talking to yourself, Joh.”
At the inn Sampon was lying on a bench in the room he had rented while his feet slowly circled the bottom of two buckets of cool water on either side of him. He was staring at the flaking, mud ceiling as Joh burst through the wooden door.
“Sampon!” Joh said. “The weirdest thing just happened to me!”
“Wonderful,” Sampon said, flinging an arm over his eyes.
Joh sat down on the bed. He could smell Sampon’s cologne doused all over the linen. “I ran into the most beautiful woman I have ever seen!”
Sampon’s arm lifted from his eyes as he looked over to his companion. “Beautiful, you say?”
Joh nodded. “Her eyes were like this turquoise color,” he said.
“Yeah?” Sampon sat up quickly and let his feet splash the murky water in the wooden buckets.
“She kissed me.” Joh stood up with a grin and placed his fists hips, puffing out his chest like a confident rooster.
“Really?” Sampon said.
“Really!” Joh said, beaming with excitement. “I was thrown through her door and I came up to my feet next to her and she kissed me. She was naked too!”
“Naked?” Sampon’s eyes were wide with wonder.
“Well, for a short time,” Joh admitted with a shrug.
Sampon furrowed his blond brow. “Wait. Who threw you?”
“Why did they—“
Joh mimicked the peddler’s high, scratchy voice. “Because they don’t like Northerners!”
“Who told you that?” Sampon asked.
“This old, creepy peddler who sold me this ruby,” Joh said, tossing his blond, curly-haired friend the jewel. “It was only fifty natars!”
Sampon studied the red gem and then raised an eyebrow. “Fifty natars?”
Joh nodded. “That’s right.”
“That’s about fifteen copper pieces.”
“It is?” Joh’s triumphant grin dissolved.
Sampon nodded and then looked at Joh. “You didn’t pay fifteen gold pieces, did you?”
Joh’s blank expression lasted for almost a minute. Finally he said, “No.” He coughed uncomfortably. “It was more like fifty.”
“FIFTY!” Sampon exclaimed, clenching the jewel in his fist. “This peddler probably had some silly name for this thing, didn’t he?”
“The uh…Tear of Drago,” Joh said in a feeble voice.
Sampon tossed his head back and laughed. “You have got to be joking! He told you this was the Tear of Drago? That’s not even red! It’s blue, you idiot!” He laughed harder this time, slapping his thigh.
Joh looked around the room, entrapped within his foolishness. “It’s not that funny, Sampon.”
Sampon stopped laughing for a moment with tears in his eyes. “Do you want to know the funniest part of all this?”
“No, not really,” Joh said, folding his arms across his chest and looking away. “In fact, don’t ever tell me—“
“This is glass!” Sampon laughed even harder than the last time, almost falling on the floor.
Joh sighed and rubbed the sides of his head. “You sure that’s really glass?”
“Yes,” Sampon said, lobbing it back to him. “Sorry, my friend, but you were conned!”
Joh studied the piece of glass one more time and then tossed it in the corner of the room. His head sank into the palms of his hands. “I hate this place!” he said angrily. “Why’d we come to the stupid desert anyway?”
Sampon gave him a long, flat look. “Because that’s what you wanted to do. You said, ‘Oh, Sampon, it would be so much quicker to get to Val Maradas if we cut through the desert. We should go!’” He took his feet out of the water and brought his legs up onto the bench.
Joh wrinkled his nose and let out a dejected sigh. “I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Okay, maybe I did,” Joh said. He scratched his head. “But it wasn’t my fault we got lost in the desert.”
Sampon’s blue eyes widened. “You said you wanted to see what was beyond the sand dunes.” He shook his head.
“Do you remember when I said that we should not stray from the Desert Road?”
“Ah, shut up,” Joh muttered. “It was pretty wasn’t it?”
Sampon stroked his hairless chin. “Yes, actually it was. I never thought endless miles of shifting sand and wind would be breathtaking. If only it wasn’t water-taking too!”
“Hey!” Joh’s mouth twitched as his mind raced, searching the inner confines of his brain for a good retort. “The water was…” He paused with one eye blinking rapidly.
“Yes?” Sampon said with a grin as he waited.
“Shut up, Sampon,” Joh grumbled. “We made it to this town didn’t we? We could’ve been still stranded out in the desert. Besides, we’re young. We can handle anything.”
“We have entered our twenties,” Sampon admitted. “Most adventurers would still call us children. I don’t want to be in that predicament again. We’ll have to buy a lot of water tomorrow before we leave. Oh, and we’ll need some camels. Setting out into the desert on foot is plain stupid to do twice!”
“I don’t like camels,” Joh said. “They always spit at me.”
“Everyone spits at you.”
“Shut up,” Joh said. “We should bring the girl with the turquoise eyes with us too.”
“Cause she’s supposed to be sacrificed to the Rain Spirit, Babba-rabba er something,” Joh said.
“Babba-rabba?” Sampon said. “That doesn’t sound like a Spirit’s name.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Joh said as he nibbled on a hangnail. “We should rescue her.”
“Uh-oh,” Sampon said with a flash of his shiny, white teeth. “This isn’t going to be another hare-brained catastrophe because of another woman you fell in love with, is it?”
Joh gave him a look of disgust. “You said you wouldn’t bring that up again.”
Sampon held out his hands with an expression of mock surprise. “Who knew she was a man?”
Joh shook his head and stood up grumbling, ignoring Sampon’s laughter. He rapidly tugged at the front of his shirt, cooling his chest and throat.
“Ah, Joh, my noble friend,” Sampon said after his laughter had ceased. “You’re always willing to do anything for long, batting eyelashes, aren’t you?”
Joh ignored him and went to the window, peering through the grime to the streets below. The townspeople were still mobbing the streets in the late afternoon sun. The girl was on his mind. He continued to think of her even after his head hit his sweat-drenched pillow and sleep overcame him.
Loud hollering outside his window awoke Joh early the next morning. The voices roared something he couldn’t distinguish, but he knew it wasn’t good. A woman’s scream was heard over the roars.
“The girl!” Joh shouted as he sprang from his bed.
And then he fell on his face.
“What the—“ he began, picking himself from the floor. It felt as if his bed was twenty feet in the air. He looked up. Something was very strange. His ceiling was much higher than it was yesterday. Joh looked over at his bed. It was also higher than the previous day.
Joh reluctantly looked down at his hands. They were short wings, covered with a pink, downy substance similar to a baby chicken. Joh screamed. To his ears it sounded more like a cry of a baby gull.
“What in the Abyssal Realms is that wretched noise?” Sampon’s voice groggily said from his bed. “Joh, get rid of that stupid bird.”
“I am that stupid bird,” Joh said in a shaky voice.
“I know, but get rid of it anyway,” Sampon said. “And close that window. All that shouting is keeping me from my sleep.”
Joh waddled around his bed. His short, flipper-like feet made it difficult to walk. He fell to the floor numerous times, squawking as he did. He ignored Sampon’s complaints and continued to slide his flippers across the wooden floorboards toward his friend’s bed. He flapped his wings and hoped for flight, and a bit of a cheer came to him. Maybe this wasn’t going to be that bad.
Nothing. His tiny wings were getting very tired. He squawked again, staring up at Sampon’s fingers dangling over the edge of his bed. Sampon was snoring loudly again. Joh decided to wake him.
“Ow!” Sampon said, flinging his blankets off and grabbing his hand. “Joh, something bit me!” He looked over the side of his bed.
“I have found your long, lost relative, Joh!” Sampon said with a snicker.
The bird cocked his head to the side. “Where?” it said.
Sampon’s smile faded. “Did you just talk?”
“It’s me, Sampon,” the pink bird said.
“No, it’s your sister.”
“How did you become a chicken?” Sampon stared at him as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Can you lay eggs?”
“What?” Joh blinked rapidly. “You gotta help me, I’m cursed!”
“You bet you are!” Sampon said. He began to chuckle. It was a slight titter at first, but it soon grew to a torrential hail of belly-clutching laughter. “You look so ridiculous!”
“You look so ridiculous!” Joh said, mocking Sampon. “I wonder if it was that ruby I bought from the peddler yesterday.”
“I hope not!” Sampon gasped. “I touched that thing!”
“It would serve you right for laughing at me,” Joh said.
“Where is it?” Sampon said, scanning the wooden floor. “I don’t see it.”
“It was a magical ruby!” Joh exclaimed happily, pointing a flipper at him. “Ha! I told you!”
Sampon looked at Joh’s new pink, fluffy body. “You certainly did, my friend,” he said. “And look what it has done.” He stood from his bed and put on his pants and buttoned his shirt. “Do you still want to save that girl today?”
Joh gave him a flat look only a pink chicken could. “Sampon! Are you kidding me? Look at me! Let’s find that peddler and change me back!”
Sampon shook his boots upside down and then slid them onto his feet. “That would probably be a good idea. Maybe he knows of a cure for you.” He bent forward with his hands resting on his knees as he stared at Joh. “Are you hungry, little one?”
“Would you like me to eat some breakfast and then throw it up on a plate for you?” Sampon asked with a wide smile.
“As long as you don’t spit in it,” Joh said. He turned toward the door and tripped on his flipper feet. “Sampon, will you carry me?”
“No, I won’t carry you!” Sampon exclaimed. “You might have…bugs!”
“You have bugs!” Joh said as he squirmed on his belly.
“Now you look a little like a penguin that fell on some ice,” Sampon said.
“What’s a pengrin?” Joh chirped as he tried to roll on his back.
His right wing flapped rapidly and both of his feet kicked wildly. He squawked in frustration as he tried, without any luck, to get onto his back. Sampon’s laughing wasn’t helping him.
“Help me, would ya?” Joh peeped as his body wriggled back and forth.
“Your other wing is keeping you from getting on your back.” It took Sampon a few minutes to get the entire sentence out amidst his waves of laughter. “Okay, Okay! Stop, I’ll carry you!” But first he slumped to his knees and continued to laugh at Joh.
Outside the inn the sun beat down without mercy. The streets were hazy from the searing heat, and bare of anyone. All shops and street vendors were closed.
“Whew!” Sampon said, wiping his forehead. He shifted the backpack strapped to his back as he held the pink-bodied Joh in one arm.
Joh’s head was tucked into his body, leaving only his beak and eyes exposed to the day.
“I can’t believe I couldn’t find my backpack,” the pink bird whimpered. “The magical ruby had better not have made it all disappear.” He let out a sigh. “Maybe they were stolen while we were sleeping.”
“Quiet!” Sampon hissed. “Do not let anyone know that you can talk.”
Joh stretched his neck and looked down each street. “Have you had too much to drink this morning? There’s no one around!”
“All right,” Sampon said. “Let’s find this peddler.”
As Sampon walked down a dusty road yelling came to his ears. It was distant, yet the only sign of life.
“I wonder if that woman is going to be sacrificed today,” Sampon said. He looked down at the bird in his hands. Joh’s eyes were clamped shut. “Are you dead, little bird?” He shook him and then briskly rubbed the feathers on his head.
“Stop it!” Joh whined. “Can’t you let a bird sun itself?”
“It’s hot out here, Joh,” Sampon said. “I’m going to hide inside from this sun. Let’s check out that temple over there. Maybe the peddler is going to watch the sacrifice.”
“What do you think; it’s like a gladiator arena for them?” Joh asked with one eye open.
“Sure, why not?” Sampon said. “We’re going in anyway whether you like it or not.”
As Sampon approached the shady open doorway two towering, bare-chested men stepped out and barred his way. They folded their arms across their chests and glared down at him. Each had a long, spiraling, coarse black beard and dark, skin-searing eyes.
“Only villagers may enter!” one of the men boomed in a deep voice.
“Well, it’s nice that you can speak my language,” Sampon said. “I have money. A lot of money.”
“How much?” the other man asked. He was nudged in the side by the other’s elbow.
“What are you doing?” the first man said. “That is not the way of a Temple Guardian!”
“He’s just a little man,” the second man said. “Look, he has a dead offering for the priest.”
“Ugh! It looks hideous!” the first temple guardian said, wrinkling his big, bulbous nose at the pink fowl. “I hope you’re not going to give it to the priest to eat!”
Sampon held out a velvet sack of jingling coins. “I think this will suit the both of you,” he said with a grin.
The second temple guardian opened the bag and inspected one of the gold coins. “Le Baron, eh?” he asked. “I’ve never been that far north, is it pretty?”
“Indeed!” Sampon said with a wink.
“There’s a lot there!” the first Temple Guardian said. He looked around as if someone was watching them. “Okay, you can enter.”
The guards parted, allowing him through the darkened portal. As they entered the temple Sampon heard the second temple guardian.
“Does this image look familiar?” The guardian handed the coin to the other.
“I can’t believe this!” the first temple guardian said. “Do you know who we just let inside our temple?”
The second temple guardian inspected the coin. “It’s not every day that happens!” he said. “Where would someone like him get that ugly bird from?”
“The rich are strange,” the first man said with a shrug.
The other guardian nodded in agreement.
The roars of several hundred men echoed through the dimly lit, narrow hallways of the temple. Neither Joh nor Sampon could make out the images on the sandstone walls meant. The path was straight and sloped downward, bringing them deeper underground. The air was much cooler within the temple, but somehow, they didn’t feel comfortable.
“I’m thirsty,” Joh mumbled.
Sampon ignored the complaint and kept walking. They passed a few darkened corridors and continued going straight, where a strange orange glow emanated and the voices were getting louder. After a few moments they came to a balcony overlooking a vast room with a high, darkened ceiling and a wide blanket of red hot coals and flame encircling a round stone dais below them.
Surrounding the burning coals were hundreds of Ku’Azherons bowing in prayer. They bobbed rhythmically and in unison, each roaring something Sampon couldn’t distinguish. In front of the chanting men were torches set around the fiery, glistening coals.
Sampon stood at the edge of the balcony and leaned over the carved stone that served as a railing. A set of winding stone stairs led down to the rocky floor.
“Sampon, look!” Joh squawked, pointing with his little wing toward the dais in the center of the cinders.
Chained above the stone platform was a woman in white robes. Her arms were stretched above her head to manacles connected to two chains fastened somewhere in ceiling where neither Sampon nor Joh could clearly see in the darkness. She kicked her bare feet and screamed in the language of the Ku’Azherons. Her black hair dangled down her shoulders and back and her cheeks were moist from the tears streaming from her eyes. Sampon gasped.
“She has turquoise eyes!” he whispered. “You were right, Joh, she’s beautiful!”
“Wait. You can see her eyes from here?” Joh asked as he squinted. “We have to free her.”
“Hold on, Joh,” Sampon said. “Something’s happening.”
A section from the floor in the center of the stone platform opened like a hatch, revealing a set of stairs below, and a man dressed in a shiny, black robe climbed up to stand below the woman. He wore a ceremonial headpiece that held two sharp, yellow horns and a mane of black, shaggy hair. He held a scepter in his hands, containing a turquoise stone at its top. He grinned widely, exposing very little teeth.
He raised his scepter into the air and spoke in the dialect of his people, turning around slowly toward the chanting mob as he did. The voices did not falter as the priest spoke, but became faster and more feverous. The woman screamed again and writhed in her chains.
Joh and Sampon watched in horror. The priest slowly unscrewed the top of his scepter and tossed the turquoise stone down to the ground. He shook the end of the rod and a long, wriggling string fell into the priest’s hands. The woman released a blood-curdling scream. It appeared to be a small snake.
“That’s it,” Joh said, trying to free himself from Sampon’s arms. “I’m gonna go and save her.”
“What are you going to do, peck him to death?” Sampon said. “Let me handle this!” He reached down and felt around his belt. He gave Joh a curious look. “Where’s my sword? It was right here when we left the room!”
Joh sniffed. “Probably with my things. Wait here. I’ll rescue her.” He began to flap his wings excitedly.
Sampon grabbed Joh and stared into his eyes. “Flap like you’ve never flapped before, okay?”
“I don’t like that look in your eye,” Joh said. “What’re you planning to—“
Sampon hurled him across the large room.
Like the chickens he and Sampon used to catch as children in Le Baron, Joh flapped wildly, gliding through the air. His mouth was open in a great big grin that only a bird could make. He couldn’t believe it, he was flying. He felt an overwhelming urge to cry like an eagle as he did it, but only squawked as loud as he could.
At first only the woman with turquoise eyes and the priest stopped what they were doing to notice. After a moment, however, the entire room was silent as the little pink bird eagerly flapped toward the dais.
Joh was losing steam.
“Gonna make it! Gonna make it!” he panted. He began to drop toward the glowing, hot burning coals. “Nyah! Gonna get cooked!”
“Flap harder, Joh!” Sampon yelled. All eyes turned passed the pink bird to the blond man at the balcony. “Uh-oh.”
“Seize him!” the priest bellowed.
Scores of the robed men charged the stone stairs. Sampon turned around toward the doorway. The two temple guardians that had barred his way to the entrance of the temple were now blocking his escape.
“We’re terribly sorry,” one of the guards said. “But we can’t allow you to leave.”
Before he could offer another hefty bribe to the temple guardians, several men grabbed him and yanked him down the steps. It wasn’t long before he was shoved to the edge of the rocky ground next to the hot cinders. He noticed that Joh was sitting safely on the rim of the platform, tired and breathing heavily.
“You dare to interfere with the sacrifice!” the priest shrieked. “Barahvah will not be pleased by this! He will not release the rains upon our withered crops now! You have ruined the ritual!”
Sampon spread his hands. “I apologize,” he said. “We couldn’t allow this beautiful woman the death you were about to give to her. To be burned alive is no way to die.”
“That is what the rock serpent is for!” the priest cried, holding aloft the twine in his hands. A grey snake writhed in his thick fingers, protesting its capture. “This would have made her numb to the touch of the fiery coals and she would have died peacefully in a dream-like state!”
“You don’t have to yell at me about it,” Sampon said. He looked around the room at the Ku’Azherons glaring at him. “Isn’t there something else you can do? Have you ever heard of irrigation?”
“Silence!” the priest roared. “A virgin must be sacrificed before the midday sun has passed beyond the portal.” He pointed toward a small hole in the ceiling between the two chains that bound the woman above the dais. “Or else we are doomed to starve this year!”
“It’s always a virgin,” Sampon said, shaking his head.
“Do you wish to take her place?” the priest said.
Sampon laughed. “Oh, I am definitely not a virgin.”
“I’ll take the sacrifice!” Joh squawked.
He wondered why he had just said that and wanted to take it back immediately, but it was too late. Everyone turned to him. Joh swallowed hard, trying to gather enough courage to muster words into his beak. “I will take her place.”
“Well,” the priest began, looking at the rock serpent. “If you’re so willing, it won’t hurt to try.”
“What?” Sampon exclaimed. “You can’t do this! That is not a simple bird! How could he be suited for a sacrifice?” He frowned. “Are you a virgin, Joh?”
The priest looked at Joh and then back to Sampon. “The bird seems more willing to do this than the girl,” he said. “I would rather not put to death someone who does not want to die.”
“I don’t want to die!” Joh said. He looked up into the woman’s turquoise eyes. They were still enchanting, yet her face was not as happy as it was when she had kissed him. He looked back at the priest. “But I can’t let her die either.”
“No, I’m not going to allow this!” Sampon said. He managed to wriggle his arms free from the grips of his captors. “Do you know who I am?”
“He’s a king!” one of the temple guardians yelled from the balcony. He held a shiny coin into the air. “His portrait is on this gold coin!”
“That’s actually my father,” Sampon said. “I’m on the silver half-coin.”
The priest gave him a long, steady gaze. “I’m sorry, prince,” he said, shaking his head. “I have to allow a sacrifice in order to appease our Spirit. We need rain for our crops.”
“If you do this, the entire Le Baron army will obliterate this town!” Sampon’s eyes were lit with rage. “Your spirit, Babba-rabba, will not be able to help you then!”
The priest smiled at him. “My, aren’t we protective of our pets.”
“He is no pet!” Sampon said. “He’s my friend.” As he took a step toward the priest several strong hands grabbed him and threw him to the ground. A hand clamped his mouth shut. His watery eyes met Joh’s.
“I’m sorry, Sampon,” Joh said. “I can’t let her die! I don’t know what else to do.”
The priest knelt and held the rock serpent before Joh’s face. Joh stared into the lidless grey eyes of the snake, locked into its gaze. He didn’t want to die. He looked up at the woman dangling above him for one last glimpse of her before it was all over. He could see up the bottom of her white robe. Despite his dire situation, he smiled.
“You have to allow the serpent to bite you or it won’t happen,” the priest said, breaking Joh’s train of thought. “This sacrifice is a Test of Will. Do you wish to aid the people of this parched land?” The priest grinned with a sinister glint in his eye. “Do you want to save her?” His eyes rose toward the beauty dangling above.
Joh, however, was now staring at the serpent. He watched its tongue flicker as if it was tasting the air and feeling the fear seep from him. Its whip-like tail curled around the priest’s wrist as it awaited Joh’s answer.
“Don’t do it, Joh!” Sampon managed to yell through thick fingers.
Joh closed his eyes. “Okay,” he whispered. “It can bite me.” There was a pause and he slowly opened one of his eyes.
The snake struck. Joh’s eye burned as if acid was just streamed in it. He fell on his back, squawking and flapping his wings in agony.
“My eye!” Joh bawled. “It had to be the eye!”
There was a bright flash of white light and steam wafted from the coals with a long hiss enveloping everything. When the steam dissipated there was no temple, no town; the people, the flaming coals, and even the entire town had vanished. Only the dry, cracked ground and yellow sand dunes remained.
“What the—“ Sampon began, looking around the desert.
At his side, clasped to his belt, was his trusty longsword. On the ground next to him, Joh had reverted back to his normal body, but he still screamed and squirmed in pain. Standing in front of Sampon, behind a rickety cart, was an old gnarled man with an eye patch.
“Stop squawking!” the peddler said in his high-pitch voice to Joh. “It was just a little bite! You’re completely healed!”
Joh stopped screaming and writhing and looked up at the bright blue sky. He looked around, realizing that he could actually see out of both of his eyes. He looked at his hands, which were no longer the pink, fluffy wings he had.
Sampon stood next to him with a look of relief and utter puzzlement. Next to him was the old peddler that he had met the day before.
“You!” Joh said, rubbing his eye. “What happened here? Where’s the girl? What happened to the temple? What did you do to me? I was a pengrin!”
“Oh, shut up!” the peddler croaked. “You still talk too much. And the word is penguin, not pengrin!”
“What’s going on here?” Sampon asked the peddler. “Who are you?”
“I decided to test the two of you,” the peddler said. “You’re outsiders to this realm and can’t be trusted immediately. I had to see your worth.” He leaned on his cart and grinned as he took off his eye patch exposing his vacant eye-socket.
Joh made retching noises at the sight and turned away. “That’s so gross!” It wasn’t the eye socket of the peddler that made him queasy. He still felt the needle-like teeth of the snake that had bitten him. He tried to shake the many thoughts in his head.
“You were lost in my desert,” the peddler said. “I gave you the chance to see if you were worthy of my rescue.”
“Worthy?” Sampon asked. “What do you mean? Joh could’ve been killed.”
The peddler turned to Joh. “Don’t you remember asking someone to help the two of you?” he asked. He faced Sampon again. “You were both lost in my desert and you requested aide. However, I can’t help just anybody lost in my home.” He pointed to the patch that covered his milky white eye. “I can see what a man looks like with this eye.” He moved his long, bony finger to the vacant socket in his skull. “With this one, I can see his intentions.” He turned to Joh and shook a spindly finger. “I never had any intention of ever killing you. But you’re a lot of fun to play tricks on! You were willing to die for a woman you had never met before, how noble!” He looked at Sampon. “And you, ever so vigilant to protect your friend.”
“Thanks,” Sampon said. He gave the peddler a sideways glance. “Can you cover that up now?”
“No. If you don’t like my socket, then don’t look at it!” The old man took a robe from his cart, threw it around his shoulders, and then pulled up a hood. “Keep going straight toward those mountains behind you,” he said. “There lies the end of the desert. Beyond the mountains you will find the kingdom of Val Maradas.”
“Hold on,” Sampon said, holding up a hand. “If you can see our intentions with your…uh…socket…then why bother with the elaborate trick? Why make us think that we were in the town of Ku’Azheron and that that girl was going to die in the temple?”
“You actually were in the town of Ku’Azheron,” the peddler said, holding up a skinny, crooked finger. “The people there perform sacrifices and I was curious how outsiders like you would react to such a ritual. They will believe now that I have taken both of you as a sacrifice. They will remember little of it, though. It’s the opium, you see. Although I saw good in you, I had to see what you could do with it; especially your gallinaceous friend over there.” He pointed again to Joh, who only looked back at him curiously.
“What does galla-dalla-dacious mean?” Joh asked.
“But what if we didn’t pass your test?” Sampon asked. “Would we have been killed?”
“On your way to the border you will find two camels and some water,” the peddler said, ignoring both of their questions. “Congratulations on your achievement and thank you for entertaining such an old man like myself! May the rest of your days be full of bliss!”
“Wait a minute!” Joh exclaimed. “Why did you change me into a fluffy pink bird?”
The old man sighed and tossed his hands into the air. “I thought it would be funny,” the old man said. “I thought you would have gotten that by now.”
“It was quite humorous!” Sampon added, nodding.
“Well, what about the ruby?” Joh asked. “Can I have it back?”
“It was glass, you fool!” the peddler said.
“Then can I have my coins back?” Joh asked.
“No,” the peddler said.
“Well, don’t I get a prize or something?” Joh asked. “I mean, I was going to die for that woman! Shouldn’t I at least get something?”
“What more could you want in life, Joh Polas?” the peddler asked. “You have all you need for happiness! There is no prize in this world that can make your life any better!” He began to push his cart away from them.
“You’ve got to be joking!” Joh exclaimed. “That snake bit me!” He frowned. “Wait. How’d you know my last name?”
The peddler stopped and turned to face him. “Perhaps you might find a ‘certain someone’ that kissed you recently on your way to the Val Maradasian border,” he said with a wink of his vacant socket.
“Really?” Joh asked, furrowing his brow. “Who?”
The old man gave Joh a flat look. “What do you mean, who?” he said bitterly. “The woman with the turquoise eyes, you idiot!” He turned to Sampon. “Did his mother drop him on his head as a baby?”
Sampon chuckled as he nodded.
“Oh, I like her,” Joh said, grinning eagerly. “She’s pretty.”
“Wait, what do I get?” Sampon asked. “I helped too!”
“Oh, good heavens!” the peddler said as his head slumped below his shoulders. “Maybe there’ll be a certain someone there for you too!” He turned back to his cart and began to push it. “By the way, my name is Barahvah, not Babba-rabba!”
Immediately after his last word, a strong gust of wind blew sharply and he and his cart turned to sand and blew away, the granules melding into the dunes.
“Well, how about that,” Sampon said in awe, watching the grains of sand sprinkle along the ground. “That was very interesting!”
“Yeah, it was,” Joh said. After a moment he turned to his friend. “Did you see me fly?”
“You didn’t fly,” Sampon said, shaking his head. “You were gliding.”
“Whatever,” Joh said. He looked down at his feet. “Hey, my things!” He picked up his backpack from the sand, hoisted it onto his back, and then strapped his sword around his waist. “Come on, let’s get going before he tests us again.”
“I agree,” Sampon said. “Who would have thought the peddler was a Spirit?” He drew in a deep breath, exhaled, and then began walking in the direction the peddler had pointed out to them.
“Wait a minute,” Joh said, stopping suddenly. “He was a Spirit?”
Joh shrugged his shoulders and then followed his friend’s footsteps as the blue sky overhead turned slowly to grey, filling with clouds eager to shed drops of rain onto the arid land.
On to new adventures…