In the darkness, three soldiers, swift and focused, with hands on the hilts of their swords to silence them as they jostled, made haste, though the sand stifled their steps. They made their way out from the blue light of the city behind them, entirely unaware of their actions some miles out in the desert.
The smallest of the three whispered to the other two, “By the Bright Star, we are close.” The other two were of the same height, though one was muscular and old, while the other was stringy yet agile.
“Turn north,” spoke the older one, in his scratchy voice. “Just over the dune.”
He led the other two, clearly most experienced and least interested in the environs. The other two stole glances off to the western sky to view its abnormal glow, but only for split seconds, as they knew they were tasked with something far greater than their curiosity.
The oldest took to the dune, rushing up and closely followed by the younger two. As he neared the top, he dropped to his belly and shimmied to the crest. He stopped and laid rigid when he did, and the other two followed suit to his left. From their vantage point, they could spot in the dip beneath the dune a band of three soldiers carrying out a patrol along the length of the aqueduct. Watching them, the stringy one began to perspire.
“Traitors,” whispered the short one.
“What is it General said they did, again?” questioned the stringy one from the center.
“Conspired to murder their commanding officer. Cowards. Traitors.”
“Silence,” scolded the oldest. The short one reddened in the face, knowing he was tasked with lookout duties and so returned to systematically panning his vision across the landscape. “Bow,” the old one said. He reached out his hand and the stringy one removed a bow from his shoulder and passed it along to him. Then the old one removed from his pack a small coin pouch, though it was filled with something similar in consistency to sand. He tied it to the end of an arrow from his quiver and very cautiously pulled the arrow back in the bow. “Gust?”
The stringy one reluctantly held up a finger to the air, feeling for any wind. It brushed past ever so slightly. He was hesitant to relay this information, but the old man repeated the request with a growl.
“Two yard lead.”
And no sooner had the words left his mouth did he arrow whiz out from the bow. They watched as it shot through the air, arched, and came down upon the three soldiers below them where it entered one’s chest and instantly burst into a fireball. The old soldier who had fired it nodded. “Direct hit.” The short one congratulated him, though he paid no attention as he led them back down the dune. The stringy one followed in the rear, swiping away the tears he shed in horror of the act he had committed, knowing he could tell no one and keep secret the new weapon they had just used against their own men.
It was a brilliant shade of red in its center, making a small red point that was painful to focus on. Its color then faded as it stretched out north and south along the smooth curve of the horizon. Pink, then yellow, then white, then blue, then black. Here, the horizon was clearest, and felt the farthest away, out at the end of the flat, endless desert. Ix felt as though it was a greater expanse than the nearest star in the sky at times. This upset him as he stood alone, staring into it across the sands. For he was far more eager to see what it was that made such a display, what thing illuminated the darkness he was so accustomed to on the other side of the world.
Ix’s world was darkness, existing under a perpetual blanket of stars, by whose placement in the sky his people tracked time. Passing lights in the sky, recognizable constellations that disappeared beyond the southern horizon only to return again from the northern one. Predictable motions, set at predictable intervals, providing consistency for the people who worshipped them. People that had grown so accustomed to this consistency that when they saw their western horizon begin to glow with a growing red light, fear began to swell. Fear for change, fear for the unknown. Fear that Ix despised. He was just a baby when it began, the questions and the concerns of the light. As he aged through his adolescence, he saw their evolution and how his people coped with their fear. New prophets, new gods, new religions. It seemed as though everyone was throwing themselves at the feet of whatever idea would protect them. Whatever thing that promised safety, and the triumph of consistency. And they would argue over whose answer was right. But the horizon continued to blaze, and the light grew in every rotation of the stars, stretching continuously towards them as they made their slow journey across the black sky. Shimmering white dots swallowed by encroaching red.
Ix stood beside the last of the line of light staffs that led out to the edge of the desert. The edge of safety. From which no one would further venture. None but the regiments in charge of patrolling the wells and aqueducts in the near desert. Even for them, it was harrowing, though the strong young men would never lead on.
It was the vibrant blue radiance of the mountain stone fastened to the end of the staffs that lit the darkness. For any who wanted to see the burning horizon, they kept close to these staffs and their blue light as they walked out from the city towards the desert to view the display. Ix was by now very familiar with each staff as he made this walk often. As he leaned on the final one, its blue stone shining above his head, he dreamed of one day stepping past it. Of entering the desert. Of being the first of his people to cross it. Of traveling to the red light. Of seeing the other side of the world. Of knowing, instead of endless theories.
A high pitch howl followed by a collection of growls told Ix a roaming pack of four legged beasts, the nybeas, were near. They roamed the desert feeding off whatever smaller creatures they could find. And for a nybea, everything was a smaller creature. Ix reluctantly turned back, though his dream accompanied him, filling his thoughts with an adventurous future. Soon, he thought. I will see the other side.
The walk took him through the valley, resting between two short mountain ranges. Their peaks were visible by the contrast of black on deep blue. As he drew nearer to the city, the path became more defined, the light staffs were at shorter intervals, making more and more of the space around Ix visible. At a certain point, there was a crossing path, one that led out both left and right. This was the road to the mines, the caverns in which the miners harvested the blue stones that provided light to their people. Ix’s grandfather had been one of these men, working day in and day out to provide light. He had tried to instill in his son, Ix’s father, Yun, the principle of work ethic. Though Yun appreciated his father, there was always the disconnect with values. Ix’s grandfather died in a mine collapse. That was the same year his mother was murdered. The year after Ix was born.
He approached the end of the trail, where the line of light staffs ended in favor of a greater light source. Large blue boulders resting in iron bowls elevated by transplanted tree trunks illuminated the streets between the dwellings. Here, on the outskirts, boarders lived in homes where the landlords took pity. It was a mix, mostly outcasts and drunks. Ix had spent some time here, speaking with these people, hearing their stories. His conclusion was that they simply never found a place in the city where they fit in. But they seemed to manage fine here, together.
A middle-aged man, though his body seemed in its twilight, hobbled out excitedly from one of the dwellings and waved enthusiastically at Ix. “Hey, Ix!” Speaking caused him to have to clear his throat. He did so as Ix laughed. “Ix, how’s that sky doing today?”
“As usual, Wib,” Ix called back from the path as he continued to walk.
“Somebody put the fire out?”
“Nope. Sky’s still on fire. World’s still ending. Everything is normal.”
Wib laughed. “I’m still coming with you to see it up close. You let me know when you go, I’ll be pissed if you take off without me!”
“I won’t!” Then Wib hobbled back inside, presumably to sit down and ease the pain in his knees. Wib had told his story before to Ix, just once. He was a heavy drinker in the city, a frequenter of the local pubs. He loved to occupy the corner seat at the bars and tell stories to the men and women who would sit next to him. Usually, they were all made up, fictions from a mind that was always traveling on flights from reality. His goal was always to enrapture the guests and regale them. Unfortunately, it was more often the case than not that the patrons would be annoyed with his presence. Most of the time, they would simply take off to the next pub and to the other end of the bar. But on one occasion, Wib had tried to entertain some very serious and brawny men throwing back drink after drink. They led him on at first, laughing along. Wib had thought they were laughing along. Later he would realize they laughed at him. As they got drunker, their laughter silenced, their aggression swelled, and Wib’s stories became a greater annoyance. When Wib made an emphatic gesture to demonstrate the size of a nybea that was at the center of his story, swinging his arm outward and splashing the contents of his cup over the hair of a beautiful young woman entering the pub, the men seized him. To demonstrate their power, they hoisted him from his seat and took him dangling to the alley beside the pub where they proceeded to beat in his knees with their bare knuckles until Wib was permanently crippled. Wib finished the story by explaining to Ix that this was why he no longer told stories. He then transitioned by asking Ix if he had told him about the time he saw the last living dragon.
Ix followed the road as it entered into the Main Square, where often there would be vendors too cheap or too untrustworthy to operate from an actual storefront. It had also become home to the street preachers, men who capitalized on the fear of the people to spread agenda. These men were passed thoughtlessly before the horizon lit up. Since, however, they began to draw larger and larger crowds. As Ix entered this space, he found it difficult to traverse to the other side as there was a sizable crowd in his way. As he shoved past shoulders and quickly lost patience when they people paid him no attention, his own curiosity willed him nearer the front to see which prophet had enraptured the crowd. As he turned and maneuvered to the front, the prophet’s voice, at first faint, then growing, came clear to him.
“People! My people! Sons and Daughters of the Stars, gather around my voice and heed my words! There is a test coming. It rises over the western horizon, its color and its radiance inescapable, its horrors not yet revealed. But, now listen my family, for what I am about to bestow upon you is in effort to save your life.”
Ix groaned at the words, generic, repeated ad nauseam in the square since he was a child. Now, having passed his adolescence, a broader perspective of the world around him provided the means to debunk these men. Listening, however, he understood how they could gather people, collect their ears and spew their rhetoric. The words entered through their most vulnerable place, the concern in their hearts. What he did not know was how to tear them away from such a display. Mostly, it was a concern for the back of his mind. However, the size of this crowd was troublesome.
The man dropped his voice, and in an effort to pay the closest attention, the crowd silenced themselves and leaned collectively inward. “It is destruction and pain what comes for us, children. Suffering and despair. And do you know why? Do you, my people?”
Ix had pushed and shoved his way to the front of the crowd. He was now directly before the prophet, a thin and tall man. He had minded his appearance. He was clean-shaven with his hair combed and neat, his wardrobe a pristine red shirt and unwrinkled slacks. He was a man of the people by sight, already a leg up on the normal lot of prophets that took to Main Square, with their scraggly beards and tattered outfits. Perhaps that is why they gathered, thinking a man who looked like them and still spoke of apocalypse had merit. Like looking in a mirror, and what they saw there was never a liar. Only familiar. And they clung to that.
“Why, prophet?” Ix called out, though he was feet from the man, who stood atop a makeshift stage of crates placed side by side. The man turned to face Ix with a face Ix didn’t expect. He smiled, leaning forward with his hands on his knees as one might greet a child.
“I’m glad you asked, young man. What is your name?”
“Ix.” Though the man’s response was off putting, Ix stood his ground.
“Nice to meet you, Ix. My name is Til.” Til reached forward his hand, white, unstained, and as Ix placed his within it, they appeared the same, only Ix’s was smaller. “I’d very much like to tell you, my son. I see a great energy within you. The Stars smile upon you, most certainly. Yes, I see it. They have glory in store for you, Ix.” Then he stood upright again and addressed the crowd. “They have glory in store for all of us, I’ve heard them talking. They cast their vote of confidence upon us. They favor us, my people.”
“Which is it?” Ix interjected.
Agitated, but cool-headed, Til again addressed Ix, “What do you mean, my son?”
“Brothers and sisters, your children, your people. There’s some inconsistencies in your rhetoric, street prophet.” The crowd was not on Ix’s side. They murmured with distaste, calling him rude and arrogant.
Til could feel them fueling his upper hand. He laughed warm-heartedly. “All of them, Ix. I mean all of them with the greatest sincerity. We are all family, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. We are a people. We are the people of the stars.” The crowd liked this distinction very much, they murmured again amongst themselves with approval. Til took notice again and seized an opportunity. He called out to them again, “We are the People of the Stars. Each of us like a twinkling majesty suspended in the sky.” They cheered. Ix felt fury burning in his gut, but knew not how to take down Til’s hold over his crowd, which, Ix noticed, was still expanding. “Yes, yes, you can take pride in that. We should all feel pride for our people. We have done so much. Rising from the blanket of dust the Stars placed us in, we stretched our arms wide and took up the land for our city. We organized, we specialized, and we created a system for ourselves. This beautiful city that shines for the Stars just as they shine for us. It has been pleasing to them.” He paused then, turning his head about, an almost imperceptible nefarious grin teasing at the corners of his mouth. “But now comes the test.”
“What test?” a voice called out from the center of the crowd. Others also called out, eager to hear what their test would be. Ix hung his head. He already knew what Til would reference next, though he knew not what for. The average street preacher was a conspiracy theorist, a man with something mad within him that clung to the fire on the horizon for stability. He would find comfort in the singular blame. But with his very sane appearance and cunning hold over his audience’s attention, Til seemed much more intricate with his purpose. Not knowing drove Ix mad.
“The light, my people. We must face the fire as it emerges from the western horizon, encroaching on our city to emerge from its tribulation a truly superior species.”
Gasps and concerned whispers. It was the same story, and yet with Til selling it, they were overeager to buy.
“I will prepare you, my people. Meet me here each day when Bright Star has peaked. I will be beneath it, speaking its wishes for us. Rest assured, we will be prepared.” He then stepped down from his stage and laid a hand on Ix’s shoulder. He whispered directly to him. “Look at that fury in your eye, boy. Who is it for?”
“Who do you suppose, street preacher?”
“Look around you. Our people are scattered and fearful in these times, like lone nybeas when they’re the subject of hunt. Dangerous. They unite when they hear my words. So I ask you, Ix, who is your fury for? Your people?”
Ix grinded his teeth. “You take advantage of their fear.”
“Then maybe they shouldn’t stink of it.”
Ix was struck by what seemed a sudden admission. “So you confess? You lie?”
“I stand for our people and will rid them of weakness. That is my truth and you can see it for yourself.”
Til pushed past Ix and traveled through the crowd, allowing the citizens to pat his back and shake his hand as he made his way. Something about the encounter made Ix feel wrong, as if his words were indeed venomous. But as he considered it, perhaps venom was needed when words with a friendly veil delivered lies.
With rage in his heart, though having nothing to relieve it, Ix thought it wise to calm it with affection for fear of it consuming him. He walked through the city to the eastern edge, where his lover Uli lived with her mother in the basement of a multi-family stone residence. He knelt by the narrow window at the base of the building, the window that led into Uli’s room. He peered through it to ensure that she was there, then managed to slip in quietly to surprise her. She was reading at her table by light of a small blue stone resting in a lantern when he seized her from behind. She gasped, but knowing instantly by the feel of his forearms across her chest that it was him.
“Ix!” she scolded.
“Is your mother home?”
“She’s still at the tavern, but she’s due home any moment.”
Ix buried his face into the crook of her neck. Though they were all pale, Uli’s skin had a magnificent glow to it that entranced Ix when he stared at her. Her shade was most desirable. Between kisses, Ix said, “Then we haven’t got much time.”
She pushed him back, though smiled to herself. She turned to face him. “Think you can just march in here and take whatever you want, Ix. That’s you, strolling through life, taking whatever you want.”
“Nothing more so than you, beautiful.”
She bit her lower lip. “Is that so?”
Ix responded with an exaggerated nod that made Uli laugh. Then she sighed. She stood, then threw herself onto her bed, her gown flowing a moment to make her appear ethereal for a moment before landing on her back. Ix leapt onto the bed to lay beside her, wrapping his arm around her waist and nuzzling his nose against her cheek. “That tickles,” she said as she pushed his face away.
“I can’t help it, all I want is to inhale you.” He stuck his nose against her face and sniffed. Uli laughed again and retracted.
“Oh, Ix, always a man of romance.”
“Best thing to be a man of, in my opinion.”
“Or perhaps one of many qualities to a man. A man could be of romance and ambition at the same time and not seem entirely divided by the two.”
Ix laid a stream of kisses across her neck. “What are you trying to say?”
The games were growing stale. Uli sighed and Ix felt the mood in the room shift. He retracted, placing his elbow against the bed to prop up his head with his hand. Looking down at Uli’s face, he could see some disappointment staining her expression.
“What did you do today?” she asked.
Ix took a moment to think of clever words, knowing the truth was not preferable. “Entertained some thoughts of grandeur and adventure.”
“You stared at the western sky again, didn’t you?” Uli lifted herself up towards his face. His lips parted in preparation for a kiss, though instead her nostrils breathed in the air about his mouth. “At least you didn’t drink with Wib again.”
Feeling suddenly defensive and eager to disprove her judgments, he changed subjects to show her his passion, that he was not a daydreamer. “I confronted a street preacher today.”
Uli groaned and threw her head back, staring up at the wall. “Why? What a waste of time, Ix. Those hard-headed noise makers, you only contribute to them.”
Ix shook his head. “No. This was was different. Til. Dressed like a normal man. His crowd was enormous, Uli. I’m afraid what he could do with the minds of our people. He was such a slimy smooth talker, that bastard—”
“Ix!” Uli placed a hand against his chest, then pushed it up to cup his cheek and turn his furrowed gaze onto her. The anger dulled in his eyes, but it was not gone. “Calm down. You want the best for the people? Lose your anger for this Til, find the love for them.”
Ix swatted her hand away. “Oh, you’re always talking about love. Sometimes there is a time and a place for aggression.”
“And a time and a place for violence?”
Uli shook her head, then laid down, resting it against her pillow.
“Lay with me.”
Drawn by the sweetness in her voice, he quelled the fire in his pit to join her by her side, wrapping his arm around her and squeezing her tightly, forgetting altogether that his father was expecting him.
New episodes coming soon.