Chapter Three

     Dawn’s blood washed over Qaris as the morning winds began to gather. A preacher’s voice rose peacefully into the air. Ohrl’s soul drifted upon its call, the melodies foreign yet familiar as he sought solace in the dawn. His nights had become full of vengeance, stronger than ever before, and he needed the desert winds to wash his anger away.

     He knelt between Josham and Xhosa in Qaris’ main temple, the courtyard crowded with prayer makers, their desires and regrets floating away on the morning breeze, allowing them to start their day in peace. It was a custom Ohrl was fast beginning to rely on, for dominance over al-Din’s desire was becoming difficult to contest.

     Beside Josham kneeled Hajrah, the wife of Josham’s fallen friend Jira’al, in prayer next to her father-in-law, Jira’al’s father, a man who introduced himself as Aswaha’ad. Aswaha’ad spoke little, but Ohrl found that none challenged what he said. Within Qaris’ black market, his word was law. Ohrl felt the enmity between Josham and Aswaha’ad, though it was far less than the bitterness seeping from Hajrah toward her late husband’s former best friend.

     Once the call to prayer was complete, the city erupted as thousands of souls began their day. Ohrl, Xhosa and Josham were taken to the great gate that burrowed through the south-western wall. Great caravans bound for Johsala and al-Qurut collected on the outskirts of the city, the dust kicked up as camels brayed and rose to their feet, readying themselves for the arduous journey. The caravans were heading west, but it was not the route to al-Qurut that Aswaha’ad had decreed Ohrl should take.

     “Follow the spires south east,” he whispered to Josham. “You know the route, and you know what lies ahead. Take him there. If he is who he says, then there’s no avoiding it.”

     Ohrl caught Josham’s troubled look, and the apologetic glance he gave to Hajrah. She stared coldly at him in return, sorely displeased at letting the man she blamed for killing her husband go with such ease. Ohrl smiled as Xhosa stood between her and Josham, her baleful stare forcing Hajrah to retreat.

     Aswaha’ad drew Ohrl close and took him aside.

     “You would do well to be wary of Josham,” Aswaha’ad said. “He is well recognised and has learned to shield his true motives. We have no loyalty to him despite what he claims to have done for Hajrah and my son. He will guide you to al-Qurut, for he knows we are watching, but treat him with caution once you near Johsala.”

     Ohrl nodded, then clipped the veil across his face as he prepared to face the desert winds. He was about to turn but Aswaha’ad grabbed his arm.

     “You have a dangerous journey ahead of you, more dangerous than you know,” Aswaha’ad warned. “I am one of the few who remember what once lay in the ruins of Ma’aq Barah. That was but a small test, for I know that the strength of those ruins has faded. If you are to reclaim what once was, all must be unleashed upon you. Husam al-Din had strength to tame the desert, I fear you do not. Not yet.”

     Aswaha’ad stood back, and clasped Ohrl’s shoulders.

     “Our people will be waiting for you in al-Qurut. Let Josham guide you but trust your heart. It could be the only thing that saves you.”

     Without another word, Aswaha’ad turned and left Ohrl alone. Hajrah followed her father-in-law, leaving Ohrl looking at Josham and Xhosa and the vast desert beyond. Josham approached once Aswaha’ad and Hajrah cleared in the inner gate.

     “What did he say?”

     Ohrl stared at the red dust and stone igniting beyond the ever-diminishing shadows of Qaris’ walls.

     “That we have a hard road ahead. You’re familiar with the way?”

     Josham nodded. “It’s been a long time. I never thought I’d tread this path again.”

     Ohrl clapped him on the back. “Trust me. It’s not one I wished for either.”

     They merged with the caravans, travelling together for the early part of the morning, then veered south off the main western route as soon as they lost sight of the city. Though the hard stone beneath their feet would easily mask their path should any have followed, Ohrl still kept a wary eye on the trail behind. Yet, as evening drew close, he’d seen no sight of anyone since leaving the caravans. Focussing on the road ahead, Josham pointed to a bright star rising just above the reddening horizon.

     “We follow that star until it reaches four hands. Any further and we’ll be drawn west.”

     He referred to a rudimentary guide of measuring the shifting of the stars. One hand; held sideways at arm’s length to measure how high each star rose above the horizon. Ohrl took a sip of water then urged the others on, glad to be travelling into the cool of night.

 

     They were nearing the end of the star’s movement when Josham raised a hand.

     “Get down,” he whispered. At once Ohrl and Xhosa sank to the ground. Ohrl scanned the horizon, but the landscape looked barren.

     “There’s a spire beyond a ridge, just over there,” Josham said, pointing to a featureless rise. “It’s small, partially buried, but it’s our first stop. We’ll rest here until dawn. They’ll not appreciate us approaching in the dark.”

     Ohrl was glad for the respite. It had been a long day of travel, even though they’d taken regular breaks. He lay back on the warm stone, his body aching as he eased his pack beneath his head. The stars shone above, and he dreamed of the night Na’ilah captured him within the Skimming Stone, reliving the moment she made love to him for the first time, the stars beyond the walls of the Oystkrakr caressing her beautiful frame. Yet his dreams soon turned as a weight began to press down upon him, and a fire began to rise in the east. He began to sweat and choke on hot breath as the screams of al-Din’s armies tore through the sands, creating a storm of vengeance determined to rip the desert apart. He woke, desperate to scream, only to find both dawn and Josham upon him. Josham held him down by his chest, while Xhosa clamped her hand firmly over his mouth.

     “You were dreaming,” she whispered, but from her frightened look, Ohrl knew it was much worse. He pushed himself free and crawled to his knees. He was breathing heavily. He looked east, just in time to see the sun rising. He turned to face it, calming his mind until he saw dawn’s blood lift from the horizon. His dreams were becoming stronger, and he knew it was from fear of what they approached. He turned to the south, wondering what power drew him there, and what effect it would have the closer he came.

     “We’ll be safe once they see us,” Josham said. “I’d rather they did than catch us hiding. Can you stand?”

     Ohrl took a deep breath then rose to his feet.

     “Do they have a name for this place?”

     Josham laughed. “If they do it’s known only to those who know. Call it what you will. They’re all nameless, but out here these settlements are our only chance of survival.”

     “How many more must we travel through?” Xhosa asked. Ohrl looked at Josham, and when he didn’t answer, Ohrl began to sense Josham’s concern.

     “How many?”

     “Two more like this,” Josham said, shaken from his reverie. “Then the ruin of Sa’adnaya. Once we reach that, you’ll have to face whatever path Aswaha’ad set before you.”

     Ohrl looked across the desert ahead. In the red morning light, he still couldn’t see the spire Josham was leading them to, but he stepped from their shelter regardless, intent on seeing the temple that marked al-Din’s demise.

     “Ohrl. Wait!”

     He turned to find Josham rushing to his side.

     “We don’t have to go this way. We can head west and join the main trails. This is a dangerous path. It’s one you need not risk.”

     Ohrl rested a hand on Josham’s shoulder.

     “There’s something here I must face. It’s been here since al-Din died.” He glanced to the southern desert. “My dreams are getting worse, Josham. I fear it will claim me if I don’t challenge what it is.”

     Ohrl walked away without seeing if Josham followed, knowing this was a journey he had to take.

 

     Whittled almost to the ground, the settlement delved beneath the surface, protected by men with bows and by the vast desert in all directions. Ohrl, Josham and Xhosa were treated with suspicion, for very few travelled this way without something to trade. Once Josham explained they were on a pilgrimage to the site of al-Din’s death, the inhabitants left them alone. Allowing them to refill their small water skins from the meagre well cut deep within the belly of the spire, the villagers seemed eager to farewell the three companions from their walls. As they continued their path, Ohrl stared at the few interested enough to watch them leave. He caught looks of wonder, not fear, but as Ohrl turned south, as the sand passed beneath his feet and daylight waned, he began to feel the threat his troubled dreams brought, knowing that each night would bring torment stronger than the night before.

     It took a further seven days through two more broken spires, with each trade post more remote than the last until, under the burning light of the setting sun, they reached the ruined husk of Sa’adnaya. They stood at the edge of a collapsed ridge, easily the height of fifty men above the desert floor. As the cliff plunged to the dust below, a vast city wall of blood-red stone rose up and blocked their view of the desert beyond, separated from where they stood by a chasm twenty yards wide.

     The once great stronghold had honeycombed from wind and age, the sun casting fiery shadows through stairwells and crumbled catacombs. It stretched across their path in both directions beyond Ohrl’s sight, following the curve of the collapsed ridge, yet to their right he saw a lone bridge arcing in the distance into the city.

     Relatively sheltered from the desert wind, the bridge remained intact and held fast as they crossed into the ruins. Wind scoured through the broken walls, and once inside, Ohrl heard echoes of ancient calls howl in between. He quickly made his way through the forgotten halls and chambers to where the crumbling city dropped to the vast plain below. It was desolate; barren save isolated sandstorms dancing like fiery waves beneath the sun’s setting rays. Josham moved beside him and they both gazed at the desert below.

     “We’ll shelter here for the night,” Josham said quietly. “You’d best get as much rest as you can.”

     Ohrl looked at him.

     “What’s out there? What are you afraid of?”

     For a long time, Josham did nothing but stare.

     “Vengeance, and death.” Josham finally sighed, then he turned to sit against the stone wall.

     “There are tales of al-Din’s last fight. He’d united the tribes. Johsala was already a force strong enough to defend our desert against the Kjatmi’ir. I don’t know the reason why this last battle took place, but victory was his, the last remnants of opposition were about to be swept away. And there begin the rumours of his betrayal. As his blood spilled into the desert, and the blood of all those slain began to flow in rivers of red beneath the surface, tales tell of the ground shaking, a violent rumble that were the echoes of al-Din’s vengeful screams. From that day, al-Din’s legend grew; his name whispered in fear.”

     Ohrl looked out toward the barren plains.

     “Those days are distant memories. They have no hold anymore.”

     “I wish that were true,” Josham said. “But your dreams seem to be getting worse, if your screams at night are anything to go by. Something drags you deeper toward al-Din as we near this place. I fear that whatever you find may be too strong for you to contain.”

     “I’ve made it this far,” Ohrl said, filling his voice with courage. Josham leaned back and turned from the desert to face him.

     “This is the place where al-Dumua qa’Badiya, the Tears of the Desert, first fell, and where the River Beneath the Desert leads to al-Bakhr min-Ruh, the Sea of Souls. This is the beginning of al-Din’s tale, not Johsala’s. This is where his anger began. If the tales are true, the priests who remain do not do so from worship. They remain to protect those that still live, to make sure that those who died that day remain dead, that bodies that are now grains of dust blown by the wind do not return and take revenge on whoever betrayed their leader. It is a place you should not be.”

     A breeze stirred Ohrl’s memory of the old man in Kindahl’s chambers. You are the wind. I am no one. I am but sand. A stronger gust blew from the desert through their chamber, and when he looked up, Josham was staring at him with grave concern. Seeing nothing more he could do to prepare, Ohrl pulled his hood deep over his face and tried to sleep. As he did, the wind fell away.

 

     A cold chill embraced him. Stars pierced the sky above, but he felt them recede as the ruins of Sa’adnaya collapsed and he sunk into the sand. He tried to gain power over each grain, but his strength had gone and he felt powerless as he fell deeper into an ever-deepening abyss. The sound of the shifting sands turned to tormenting whispers mocking his name. Then he felt something grip his arm.

     A clawed hand, rough and dry. He looked up, hoping to see the face of his rescuer, but he stared into the eyes of the undead as scores of al-Din’s warriors leapt from the desert and dragged him deeper into the pit. He fought to rise but he had no strength. As their grip tightened, waves of sand poured into the abyss from high above, smothering the light of the stars. Unable to move, Ohrl lay still, buried and without any hope of escape.

 

     A lone voice drifted into the air. It was a mournful cry, yet it shook Ohrl from the fears of a forgotten dream. A weight lifted from his soul, and he opened his eyes to find dawn’s blood just rising, casting its light on a small, solitary structure previously hidden by the sandstorms in the middle of the distant plains below. Xhosa sat next to him, her soothing hand resting on his chest. She smiled reassuringly, but Ohrl saw the fear in her eyes.

     “Perhaps Josham’s right,” she whispered. “Perhaps we shouldn’t go there.”

     She stared at the structure. It appeared square with a single dome perched in the centre but unadorned by minarets or courtyard walls. She looked at it a few moments longer.

     “I’m not afraid of what we find there. I’m afraid for you, of what it will do to you.”

     Josham stirred and Ohrl rose so that all three sat at the edge of Sa’adnaya’s ruined wall overlooking the humble temple.

     “Whatever I face, I’d rather get there before the morning winds blow,” he said, glad that the gusts of wind howling through the ruins during the night had stilled. He felt strangely at peace and wondered if his sense of calm was, in fact, what kept the winds at bay.

 

     It didn’t take long to descend through the warren of stairwells and caverns before they set foot on the desert. The winds, however, regathered as they strode out onto the plains. The sand buffeted and stung. Forced to bind their veils tightly across their faces, they lost sight of the temple, its pale walls lost in the haze. Anger filled the air with howls of retribution and revenge.

     “We shouldn’t be here,” Ohrl heard Josham cry out, and the strength of the wind surged as if in response. Ohrl turned and saw that the walls of Sa’adnaya had also disappeared. They were caught, but Ohrl huddled them close together to fight their way forward and push deeper into the gathering storm.

     I am the wind.

     He cast his mind out, searching for the source of whatever power strove against them, yet he felt as though he was attempting to climb a continually crumbling cliff, his footholds failing before he made headway. The winds intensified, fuelled by al-Din’s rage. Xhosa stumbled. Josham caught her and held her close.

     “We must turn back,” Josham called out, but Ohrl ignored him. Instead, he stood tall and remembered what he’d be taught.

     Calm your mind. Breathe.

     Ohrl closed his eyes and mastered his fear, feeling the gentle rhythm of his chest rising. I have breath. I have all that I need.

     The howls thrashing around him began to subside. He felt weariness leave him, and soon the stinging sands began to soften. He deepened his breath, then pushed out as he exhaled. Sensing a circle of calm surround them, he opened his eyes and unclipped his veil. The sandstorm pummelled the desert, yet within Ohrl’s sphere there remained an essence of peace.

     “You did it,” he heard Josham’s whispered praise, but Ohrl felt he’d not controlled the winds but that the winds were his fears. With his mind in turmoil, they thrashed unabated. Only with a calm mind could he temper them, but should that hold unravel, they would be lost upon these barren and never-ending plains. He breathed deeply once more and again set foot south in search of the humble temple.

     As they crossed the plains, Ohrl realised there was no sound. Even their feet crunching through pockets of brittle sandstone failed to break the silence. He concentrated on this peace, ignoring the violence engulfing the desert beyond his sphere, yet as they continued, he heard a low rumble of chanting voices penetrate the wind.

     He followed the sound, the rumble gaining strength as out from the storm loomed the small temple, its weathered walls protected against the wind. Sitting, cross legged in front of the temple, was a wiry old man, his robes bleached white beneath the sun, matched by his long white beard. His eyes were closed and Ohrl, Josham and Xhosa were almost upon him before he looked their way. As he rose with the aid of a wooden staff, Ohrl noticed that his clothes were ragged, barely held together over his leathery skin. The old man cocked his head, searching the air for sound of their movement, and Ohrl realised he was blind.

     “Who comes before the Gates of the River?”

     Ohrl stepped forward. “I do. Ohrl, of Hejveld.”

     Confusion crossed the man’s face. “A foreign name and a foreign place, neither do I recognise. Step close.”

     Ohrl moved a few steps closer, and the blind man stretched out his hands, searching for Ohrl’s frame. He grappled with gnarled fingers upon Ohrl’s robe until he tightly gripped Ohrl’s arms and pulled him with surprising strength to within a few inches of his face. The old man’s grip eased, and he began feeling Ohrl’s face with brittle fingers scarcely more than skin over bone.

     “Who are you?” he whispered. Ohrl stared at him, an old man lost in his own mind.

     “I am the wind.”

     The words fell from his mouth, and the old man gripped him as his eyes flicked open. They were opaque, the cataracts consuming his sight, but Ohrl felt his soul tear open as the old man ripped through his mind. Ohrl’s legs gave way and he almost collapsed, but the strength of the Temple Guardian held him in place, and Ohrl was pulled close so that the Guardian could whisper in his ear.

     “It comes undone by the minds of all, and into One shall the great light fall. We’ve been waiting for you. The time has come to be reunited.”

     The old man pulled away, his unseeing eyes staring into Ohrl’s soul, and a look of confusion crossed his face.

     “But you are not ready. You are not yet whole.”

     The Guardian’s eyes lost whatever focus they held, and his strength once again lessened to that of a frail, old man. He released his grip on Ohrl’s arms and settled back down to crouch upon the desert stone and stare out at the eastern horizon. Sensing there was little more that the old man would offer, Ohrl stepped toward the dark alcove penetrating the temple walls.

     The entrance led to a tunnel that wound its way below ground, opening at last to a vast, underground cavern. A shaft of light poured down from a hole in the dome above, illuminating a horde of skeletal priests chanting and swaying, their monotone voices the cause of what Ohrl had heard as they approached. Lying at the centre of where the light fell was a simple circle of stone a man’s length in diameter. It was the only barrier the swaying priests did not breach.

     “The old man whispered something to me,” Ohrl said as they stared at the chanting priests. “It comes undone by the minds of all, and into One shall the great light fall.”

     “I’ve heard that before,” Josham said, his eyes wide in wonder. “Before the Temple of al-Din, in Johsala. It’s part of a prophecy, but I never gave credence to such words.”

     “He must have meant that I am to enter that light,” Ohrl said as he stepped forward. “Stay here.”

     The cavern stank of death, but there was power hidden within the shadows. He could feel it surround him. It was faint, like the last breath the instant before annihilation comes. As Ohrl stepped closer he saw the gaunt faces of those protecting the Gates of the River. He tried to weave a path toward the circle of stone, but it was almost impossible, for the priests swayed like reeds beneath the water. He was afraid to touch them, lest he break whatever spell they cast. Several men looked up as they brushed his leg, their eyes unseeing before they continued their chant and allowed Ohrl to move on.

     He could feel the power surrounding the circle of stones. It was a wall of pressure. its resistance gathering the closer he came. He yearned for Faerl’s help, for he knew without the power of al-Din’s Priests, he’d have little control over what he faced. Yet he continued on, and with each step the chants gained strength, with sweat beading his brow as his legs began to drag upon the stone.

     “I am the will of al-Din,” he cried, hoping to gain ascendancy over whatever power prevented him from reaching the centre of the light. The old Guardian’s words fell from his breath. “It comes undone by the minds of all, and into One shall the great light fall.” He tried to tune his mind to the hum of their words, searching for a link to control their minds, but he found there was no thread with which to weave, no physical being that he could coerce. He looked at the priests, their faces thin, their unseeing eyes lost in whatever torture they endured. They weren’t alive, nor were they dead. This was a place halfway in between, and Ohrl found he had no power over them at all. The light was only a few metres away, but Ohrl could not summon the strength to reach it. He returned to Josham and Xhosa and slumped wearily against the wall.

     “There’s nothing for me here.”

     Xhosa reached an arm around him, a small comfort for the disappointment he felt. Then he looked across the sea of swaying priests and caught the blue, still eyes of a man staring at him with stern precision, hidden in an alcove on the far side of the cavern. The man stood, gestured for Ohrl to follow then disappeared into the darkness beyond.

     Ohrl slipped free from Xhosa’s embrace.

     “What is it?” she asked as he rose, but Ohrl didn’t respond. He walked carefully around the edge of the cavern and slipped through the alcove to a chamber lit by an ochre firelight. The man stood with his back facing Ohrl, standing at a large stone table positioned in the centre of the room. As Ohrl approached, the man removed his hood and shifted to the side of the room, giving Ohrl a view of a clear, hexagonal stone resting on the table in the centre of a shallow wooden bowl. Ohrl stared at it in fear then tore his eyes away to look at the man who’d brought him here.

     “You’re the Guardian from outside the temple?”

     The man smiled. His features were the same, but the cataracts had gone, leaving only blue eyes piercing from the darkness.

     “I am all that you see, and I am all that is left.”

     Without warning, his face transformed to become that of the priest who had brushed his leg, yet the same blue eyes remained.

     “All of these men were like me, but I am the last. We have become one. The priests in the room beyond are now just husks, their souls consumed within me. They protect the gates against any who seek to escape, but I am not the one that will break its walls.”

     Ohrl stared at him. “You mean that power wasn’t trying to prevent me from getting in, it was a barrier against those trying to get out?”

     The man nodded. “And you were wise to refrain from attempting any more. You showed great strength, strength enough to make it within the inner circle of those surrounding it. Your friends would not have survived had they tried. I was impressed, but that is not where your destiny lies.”

     The man’s face transformed again, and he cocked his head as though listening, his eyes staring into the darkness, then his attention returned, and he regarded Ohrl once more.

     “Why have you come, Ohrl of Hejveld?”

     Ohrl sighed. “I was told I would find answers.”

     “Answers?”

     Ohrl thought he saw a smirk cross the old man’s face.

     “There are few answers here. Even we do not fully understand what it is we protect. For centuries we have remained, our souls bound to the power that protects those gates. Each lifetime we live diminishes our number by one, as each soul is consumed by the rage of al-Din.”

     Ohrl looked up and the old man smiled.

     “Yes, we feel it, like an earthquake building beneath the stone. It is tempered, though we fear that once I am gone, when the last strength of the gate fails, there’ll be nothing to stop the souls that died by al-Din’s side from rising to exact their revenge.”

     “Revenge against who?” Ohrl asked. “I feel the rage of al-Din within me as if it was my own, but even I do not know who my enemy is. I’ve been betrayed by al-Din’s Priests and my own brother, but I can turn my anger against neither.”

     The old man looked at him. “It pains me that you desire to do either, but I know nothing of the deeds of al-Din’s Priests after Husam fell. Since that day, we have remained here, isolated and alone. I cannot tell if they are worthy of al-Din’s revenge.”

     Ohrl had wondered about that fact as well. He had sensed Husam’s confusion. It was the same confusion he felt against Faerl.

     “What did you mean when you whispered in my ear above. ‘It comes undone by the minds of all, and into One shall the great light fall.’ The one. That’s you? And what comes undone? Husam’s cage?”

The man shook his head. “It is part of a prophecy the Priests lay within al-Din before his death, but it serves him into the afterlife, in order to protect the power he contains. All who protect him know this prophecy, for we are all connected.”

     He gestured to the stone resting in the bowl on the table.

     “We know of the temple beneath Johsala, guarding al-Din’s tomb. Here, his soul passed. There, at the other end, his body rests. All that was left was this stone, a gift from Izz al-Din, perhaps the strongest of all al-Din’s Priests. He was a warrior. He knew there would be trouble, so he left this stone here for us to guard, waiting for a time when one would come with the strength to find them.”

     “Them? They wanted to be found?”

     The Guardian shrugged, then remained still. Ohrl stared at the stone, the light it emanated entrancing and inescapable. Swallowing all fear, Ohrl reached out and took it in his hand.

     There was nothing. No sense of power, no surge of rage.

     “I don’t know what it is,” the Guardian said, “but we have kept it safe for as long as we could. Take it, for my life will soon fade, and with it all hope of preventing the souls of the dead from rising. If you truly are the rebirth of al-Din, then you will know its worth. Time is running out, Ohrl of Brúnn. You must find what you seek.”

 

     Disappointed, Ohrl returned to Josham and Xhosa. When she saw him, Xhosa ran forward and wrapped her arms around him.

     “Ohrl, where have you been? You disappeared through solid stone. It’s been over a day since you were gone.”

     “A day?”

     Ohrl looked over his shoulder toward the alcove he’d just come through, but there was nothing there, just a wall of shadow. He felt the clear stone sealed in one of his robe’s compartments and knew it was not a dream.

     “We have to go,” he said, much to the confusion of the others. He knew they wanted answers but, like the old man, he was unsure if he had any to give.

     They resurfaced from the temple, forced to shield their eyes from the intense desert sun. The blind man stood waiting, his eyes staring aimless at the sky.

     “It’s not yet midday,” Josham said. “There’s a small well a day south from here, then we must head west. There’s nothing beyond here now.”

     Ohrl stared at the western horizon, at the vast emptiness toward Johsala. Doubt crept into his heart, and he turned instead to the east.

     “There’s something else. Something I need.”

     Josham gripped his arm.

     “I told you there’s nothing out there,” Josham warned, but Ohrl ignored him. He stood in front of the old man, knowing that beyond those unseeing eyes, the Guardian of the Gates would hear everything he asked.

     “I’m drawn east. Tell me what lies beyond.”

   “Ohrl, what are you doing?” Josham said, trying to lead him away, but Ohrl shook Josham free and stared imploringly into Guardian’s eyes.

     “Something calls to me. You knew what lay here before al-Din was slain. There’s something he needs, something he lacks.”

     The old man smiled. “He lacks his people. Now they call for you. There are ruins to the east, an ancient stronghold called A’anket, once a haven for Husam and those he led. There, you may find the answers you seek.”

     The old man’s smile turned to laughter. “Either that, or you will find death.”

     He broke free of Ohrl’s hold and Ohrl could do little but stare at him in silence as he wandered back within the entrance to the temple.

     “He’s right,” Josham warned as the old man disappeared. He spun Ohrl to face him. “There is only death out there. Follow me west. It’s time we made for Johsala.”

     In Josham’s eyes, Ohrl saw fear and desperation, but no more than he felt himself. He sent a wave of calmness over his guide.

     “I can’t explain why, but I trust that old man. What lies out there, Josham? Tell me.”

     Sweat began beading upon Josham’s brow.

     “No one goes beyond that final well,” he said. “It is a marker, a last reprieve before turning back. We cannot go that way.”

     Ohrl felt his anger rise. “That’s not what I asked. Tell me what lies in the desert beyond. What secrets have been forgotten out there?”

     “There’s nothing,” Josham rasped. “Only ruins. As the old man said, it was once a haven for al-Din and his men, but not anymore. It’s not safe, Ohrl. We must turn for Johsala.”

     Josham was almost pleading. Even Xhosa stood behind him, her eyes imploring Ohrl to heed their guide’s call. He saw the strain on Josham’s face, yet Ohrl would not let go.

     “Tell me what you’re afraid of, Josham. You know the affect I have over al-Din and he over me. Tell me what awaits.”

      Josham shook his head. “That well marks the last boundaries of the Second Ring. Already we tread too close, but any we encounter beyond that well will have strong ties to Wahid. Return there, and you’ll get us all killed.”

     Satisfied he’d finally got an honest answer, Ohrl released Josham’s mind.

     “I don’t fear Wahid, Josham. He sent me from his lands to find something, to prove my worth, but he expected my return.”

     He left Xhosa holding Josham and began walking south, determined to follow this path. For a moment he walked alone, then, realising his companions were not following, he turned and waited until they again walked by his side.