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Glimpses of time past
From a skull not his own
But the weight another carried is lifted.

I hear the voices. Faint, at first, growing louder. Fading in from the light, faces, everywhere, laughing and crying and trickling from my hands. I see my own ruined face, twisted and surreal in the distance. Pressure builds behind my eyes, springing black spots that speckle and slice into my skull.

Fighting down panic, I begin to run, break into a sprint. The world glides beneath me, flying and falling in a sudden display of earth. A swathe of lights sparkle and dance before my vision, wrestle with the brilliance of the sun, moving with bright flashing wings. My breathing grows shallow and I find myself stumbling, searching for something to focus on when everything is a blur.

Why doesn’t it listen? I control this thing, my body, but no, I don’t, it’s her controlling me now—

I hear her, snarling in a low voice, whispering taunts and encouragement, let go, let out, let in. Blood ribbons streaming as nails bite into flesh, this isn’t new but it is fun, fun to let her take over isn’t it. I don’t have to feel any of it and all of it at once, that is happiness, at least the only happiness I have ever known. Bitter tang lances into veins and tugs my mouth into a smile, or a snarl, or something in between.

Hot thickness is surging through my head now, eyes closed but blinking away shadows frantically, wake up, wake up, but I never went to sleep.

Real life sneaking under my eyelids, a sliver of flashing bright, prickling at my brain and pulling me up, up from this—

Eyes open, and darkness everywhere.

It wasn’t dark before.

Coolness settles over me, heavy and chilling. The sun has declined past the land now, as far as I can tell. I sit up, look around, see tiny lights flicker in the sky. The sky used to be a wash of grey. This sky doesn’t look like sky. Not with its speckle of lights. It looks more like the sea, but darker, farther.

“I am prepared to continue this without him.” The voice is near, but I cannot detect its source. I can’t even tell who it is. It sounds warped, muffled. The sky seems to have taken me up in its hands and carried me far away.

“Take him. Maybe he’ll come back.”

“I don’t feel like dying of dehydration today.”

“We’re nearly there.”

“What happened?”

“Hallucinations. I don’t know. You know what this desert can do.”

As if it’s a living thing, this desert. Sviros. Intent on eating us alive, sucking our squirming bodies into its depths.

“Luzile. Can you wake up? It would be nice if we didn’t have to carry you.”

It’s Juase’s voice, clearer now than before but still underwater. I try to say something, but why can’t I see? Where have my eyes gone?

“He’s moving.”

“Doesn’t mean he’s coming back.”

I’m moving, I’m sitting up. Why can’t they see me? Why can’t I see them? I try to stand, but something is pulling me to the ground. Then everything is swaying, and I can’t hold my eyes open anymore. Or perhaps they are open, but I can’t see the difference between the speckled sky and the inside of my eyelids.

Something quick and sharp pierces my eye socket, and I gasp from the sudden pain that bolts up my skull. A knife is twisted in my spine, shooting up fast and erasing every thought from my mind, paralyzing my body, shaking me as if trying to wake me from sleep. Someone’s hands are clamped in my skull, pulling it apart and digging out the soft, tangled insides.

But it is the pain that reminds me I am alive. I am not gone away to Mara’s place. I am here, with them, and though I cannot see, I feel the pain, and the pain is life.

Then I am lost, like I have been dropped in some random time, some random place. I am nowhere and everywhere. Alive, dead, I am still thinking, but that’s all that is left of my existence. No hunger, no thirst, nothing except a strange string of thoughts floating in nothingness. I wish for the pain to come back. To remind me that I still am.

Am what? Alive without feeling? Pain but no real hurt?

Her whisper is so quiet, I can barely hear it.

Then the sky is gone. Disappeared, replaced with sand. Sand in my mouth, in my ears, filling my eyes and my head. But I can see again. I twist around to view my surroundings. Relief floods through me when I see Juase standing a few paces away.

“Awake, are you?” His voice is normal now. Not distorted or underwater.

My body begins to tremble, but the pain is fading. We are still in the desert, and the sun has fallen low, washing the sky dark gold and scarlet.

“Can you stand?” Juase kneels beside me and extends a hand. I ignore it.

“What happened to me? Where…” I trail off, unable to form words.

“It was…odd,” Juase says hesitantly, and I snort. “No, not like—well, you stood up, and kind of started to…run, except it was a stumble, like you couldn’t see where you were going. Then you collapsed, started twitching a bit. We weren’t sure what was happening, but Chiqu insisted we keep moving, so….” He shrugs.

“A little while ago you started to wake up, I think, and then your eyes sort of rolled into your head. And just now, well, I guess you woke up for good.”

His eyes are creased in the corners, and I can almost believe he’s concerned. If, of course, he was talking to anyone but me.

My brain feels like it is being stretched, head throbbing, everything is violently whirling around me and I’m struggling to simply exhale. Suddenly I’m shivering, even in the sharp rays of the setting sun, sweat cold on my back. I want to run. I try to stand, but a wave of exhaustion crashes over me and tugs me to the ground. My heartbeat. It’s too brisk.

“I—I can’t—”

Even words are slow on my tongue. I can’t seem to grasp any of the thoughts wildly flying through my head.

Juase is saying something, his hand is on my shoulder now, but his face is blurring and I can’t focus on what he’s trying to say. Desperately I yank my foggy mind away from unconsciousness, but everything is fading quickly now. I have faced the delirium of dehydration and don’t want to go through it again.

Panic shoots up my sluggish veins that have grown tired from working to keep me alive. My chest is tight as I fight down nausea. Then Chiqu is kneeling in front of me. “Take a deep breath,” I hear her say. “You’re in shock from whatever just happened. Slow down.”

I hadn’t realized how rapid my breathing had become. Every muscle in my body is tense, and it’s beginning to hurt. Slow down. I can’t run. Not now. Not when I’m so close.

Slowly I focus on steadying my breaths, then get to my feet, focusing on not falling over. I don’t meet anyone’s eye. I know I’ve slowed our progress. Many would probably have rather left me behind. From what I heard, Chiqu was one of them.

But she’s here now, watching me cautiously. “Good?” she asks, and I nod. “Alright. Let’s keep going. I want to get to Sviros before it’s too dark, and it’s already sunset.”

We move quickly over the sand, Chiqu the fastest of all. Every time I look up, she’s at risk of disappearing into the distance. Now I’m falling behind. Several times, Juase feels it necessary to fall back with me. I resent his company because I know it’s just out of sympathy.

He opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “Don’t,” I growl through clenched teeth.

“What?” he demands, looking startled. “What did you think I was going to say?”

“Don’t pity me,” I finish, averting my eyes so he can’t see the bitterness.

“I was going to say that…well, that place back there?” He pauses, glancing back, but the pool is far away by now. “It’s not a place we should have…gone.”

I glance at him, confused. “What? What do you mean?”

“That’s where…um, the Assembly, you know them, don’t you?” He’s stammering now, and I can tell he’s nervous.

“Changing the subject?” I remark wryly, but he shakes his head adamantly.

“No, this is part of it,” he assures me. “Do you know the Assembly?”

I have a vague idea of how they influence the culture in Sviros. As far as I can tell, they make laws and rules. Like a chief, but there’s more of them.

Juase takes my silence to indicate ignorance. “Sviros is based on a barter system,” he explains conversationally. “The cities produce goods to trade with each other, and the Assembly basically oversees that.”

“How do you get on the Assembly?”

“They are a council of representatives from merchant guilds who are the most successful at their trade,” says Juase. “Each guild was established a while ago, and they choose a representative from each city. Most of the cities have a specific item they’re known for trading. Books and paper from Av Orde, art from Av Maling—and Av Kutse is known for their lovely tapestries.

“Sometimes the Assembly deems an additional guild skilled enough to become one of them, and sometimes, if a trade isn’t selling well, the Assembly will demote one of the representatives to something lower down, like an advisor. And, well…some guilds are more favored than others. Particularly ones that focus on arts, rather than…farming.” He gives me a knowing look. “If you know what I mean.”

I give him a cold stare. “No,” I say. “I don’t know what you mean. In Jagas our lives were centered around collecting food. And if you ask me, food is pretty important, considering we can’t live without it.

“Of course, of course,” Juase says, waving me off. “But in Sviros, we believe that when you die, your essence goes into whatever you have created in your life. Tapestries, paintings, murals, pottery, books…that kind of thing. Anyway, farming guild cities, like Av Mat, are closer to the sea, where temperatures are more moderate and there are less sandstorms. They only deliver food to the capital every so often.”

“And if you’re so focused on creating things, who collects the resources? The silk for the tapestries?”

Juase pauses. “The…lower-class citizens would do that,” he explains quickly. “Those who are not part of a very successful guild are still allowed to create things, but their jobs are to harvest and gather, mostly. And, well…” He looks embarrassed. “More Jagaser tend to be in those coastal regions. No offense, or anything.”

“So, if you’re talented and successful, you’re in charge?”

Juase doesn’t reply for a moment, looking displeased at my paraphrasing. “I—well—when you say it like that, it sounds awful,” he splutters. “But it works out quite well. The successful guilds know what they’re doing, and the rest of us benefit from it. The Assembly isn’t any better off than the regular merchants, just more powerful. And—and we have festivals!”

He says this with so much enthusiasm, I give him a skeptical look. “For what?”

“Plenty of things,” he boasts. “Art, music, stories—sometimes just because we want to. I always loved songs the best. Especially the ones that told stories. See, if you’re a good storyteller, or a good musician or artist, you’re also highly respected. But everyone has talents. That’s what we celebrate the most.”

“Sounds joyful,” I grumble scathingly, but Juase nods happily, not catching the taunt.

“It is,” he affirms, and we walk in silence for a while. It’s not after a long time that I realize he never told me what was wrong with the pool beneath the rock.

I’m about to ask him when I see it. The lights. It is like the sun has split into thousands of tiny particles. Shimmering off the pale buildings are the rays of the disappearing sun. The heart of Sviros. The one place we may be safe from this monster of a desert. So close.

As we move closer, the towers of sandstone that used to be just specks in the distance loom as large as the Isfell. Then something else catches my attention. Only a faint roaring at first, but growing louder quickly. In the distance, a swirling black blur rolls closer, twisting and howling in fury. Blasts of sand and dust begin to bite at my ankles, blowing sand into my mouth and ears as the earth takes vengeance.

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