The desert stretched on forever, an infinity of golden, rolling dunes. It appeared to be an ocean with waves moving at a pace of immeasurable slowness. Golden with time, the rocks broke through the sand every so often, while enormous creatures of the deep swam through the glowing sand with equal slowness.
If I were high in the sky, suspended in place for a millennium, would I see the desert move? Would the waves ripple and travel? Would the rock creatures leap and crest and return back to the sand like a pod of dolphins playing in the sea? For a moment I feel weightless. All the pain- the burning hot sand under my feet, the chafing of my shirt on my shoulders, the perpetual dryness of my throat- was replaced by a blissful coolness.
For a moment, I saw myself as a tiny speck darting across the surface of the waves, unimaginably fast to the sand swimmers. And for a moment, something rose within me, an emotion despite the emptiness. Awe, deeper than the ocean, more profound than the waves filled my soul.
And then, I’m on the ground, as empty and desolate as the desert around me. Shaking my head while walking, my feet slipped in the sand. The sun was directly overhead now, instead of behind me. I tried to remember how long I’d been walking. I couldn’t remember how many days or hours have passed. I don’t care. I can’t remember what it feels like to care.
Cresting a wave and skid-shuffling down the far side, a rock leviathan stuck its head out in front of me. A small ripple of shade emerged around it. It was a good spot to rest, so I slid down into the shade. Running my hand over the sand-smoothed surface of the black stone, I closed my eyes. A blue-violet image of the dunes remained on my eyelids, like a personal ocean for my eyes only.
I licked my lips, sandpaper against leather, and brought my metal flask to my lips. A single drop, hot and bitter, tasted like heaven to me. It rolled down to soak into my tongue. I opened my eyes and tilted my head to the side. The flask had nothing left to give. I reached inside myself, trying to find the magic, to refill it. But we are both hollowed out. I have nothing left to give. The flask fell, bouncing off my chest to hit the sand without a noise.
I stared at the cracked, sunburned skin of my fingers. After all, this might be the last time I see them. My water is gone. My magic is gone. My emotion is gone. I am going to die. And I don’t feel a thing. I’ve heard cautionary tales told time and again by mentors and other students of this happening, Times when a magician pushed too far, draining herself too often and too much. In the end, losing all emotion, and thus the ability to use magic. Somehow, though, I never thought it would happen to me.
It was a terrible way to go- alone in the middle of the desert, drained of everything, and just a husk of my previous self. At least I wouldn’t be afraid. No longer capable of feeling fear or sadness, the sand would not comfort me as I died. Smiling out of habit at the gruesome thought, my lip cracked, oozing blood. I pulled my lip inside my mouth, unwilling to let the desert taste me before I die. The blood tastes like my last bitter drop of water from the flask. I closed my eyes, feeling the moisture spread through my entire mouth.
Standing on wobbly legs, I plodded off in the direction opposite my footprints from earlier. The flask discarded in the sand behind me as the only thing willingly given the desert. Crossing a never-ending line of dunes, I refused to stop and think of sitting still and waiting to die. My breath rasped across my tongue, down my throat, and into my lungs as I reached the top of a dune. I paused, wiping my forehead out of habit since I was too dehydrated to sweat.
A glimmer on the horizon caught my eye as I looked out over the barren desert, squinting my eyes against the brightness. My heart stopped in my chest. A lake. A small oasis buried in the middle of the desert. Nestled beside a clump of rocks, it was surrounded by green foliage, shimmering in the sun. Finally, an emotion filled my chest, lapping up against my ribcage, flowing through my veins and soaking into my nerves. Hope. Maybe I have a chance to survive.
I take off towards it, skidding and stumbling down the steep slope of the dune, losing sight of it as I enter the small valley between crests. All my pain- the soreness of my feet, the burnt skin on my face, the dull ache inside my chest- becomes irrelevant, replaced with the need for water and shade. It’s so close, less than a mile away, half an hour at most across the shifting, sliding sand.
I move without caution, Hope sloshing inside me, carrying me forward, scrambling up one side of a dune, then tumbling down the other, falling often, my hair and clothes and mouth gritty with sand. I pause for a brief moment at the top of every dune, looking to see if I’m still on track, still heading towards the lake. The rhythm becomes familiar; down, up, pause. Down, up, pause. My breathing grows ragged, and my pace slows. Down, pause, up, pause, up, pause, down.
I stop at the top of the next dune, squinting against the sun that’s almost at the horizon now, and count the distance to the oasis. Twelve dunes. Twelve dunes and a short walk and I’ll be there. I can do it. I rub my hands over my face and start again. My body moves mechanically, step, step, step, step, slide down the side. I don’t notice what I’m doing or how far I’ve come. The sky in front of me turns red, orange and purple, and I stop, looking out to find my lake again. Twelve dunes. Just twelve dunes and a short walk and I’ll be there.
It’s almost dark now, a few golden-green smears in the indigo sky all that’s left of the sun. I can still see my lake, though, reflecting the green softly. I count the distance to it. One two three…twelve dunes. Just twelve dunes-My legs give out, and I thump to the sand, watching as the lake dries and disappears before my eyes. It was a mirage. The hope inside me ripples, uncertain, ready to dissolve. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to hold it in, gasping for breath in the dry, still hot air.
This can’t be the end. I’ve come too far, reached the point of breaking, and passed it. I healed myself. I should have triumphed. I did triumph, overcoming what I thought was the end, coming farther than I should have been able to. Then why am I still here? Why am I still suffering? Why am I dying? A voice, a memory, comes into my mind, “Where there is hope there are trials.” Where there is hope…. I sit up, staring off to where my lake should have been, wrapping my arms around myself like I’m falling apart. I will not let this be the end. Hope rises inside me again, sloshing against my rib cage, filling my limbs and flowing around my nerves.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and direct the feeling, the power, channeling it into…what? I don’t quite know. I’m guided by the hope, the idea, that I will not die today. Just like I’ve learned, just like I’ve done so many times, I focus the emotion, condense it, shape it, and then let it go. The ground gives way beneath me. I fall backwards, instinctively clawing at the air, the smell of salt and brine filling my lungs for a second before I hit the surface and plunge down into the blueness, bubbles trailing in my wake. I open my mouth to gasp for air, but water rushes down my throat, into my lungs, burning and aching with salt.
I flail to the surface, coming out of the water for just long enough to gasp a breath that’s as much water as it is air before a wave pushes me down again, wrapping itself around me and forcing itself into my open mouth. I can’t think, can’t breath, can’t feel anything except blind panic and a need for air. Cold air rushes into me as I break the surface once more.
“This is your world!” A voice calls. “Control it!” It starts to say something else, but it is lost as I’m once more plunged into the water. A hand grabs my wrist and drags me up, out of the water. “Stop this now!” Hands grip the sides of my face, holding my head above the waves, and I gulp down the fresh air, chest raw from salt and sand. A wave rises up, and we rise along with it, smashing down into the trough in a spray of water. My eyes are too blurry from salt to see my companion. “I know you’re capable. Use your magic and stop this.”
Magic. Use Magic… I let out a breath, releasing the panic from inside me. The rocking motion of the waves stops. The air becomes calm. I rub my eyes and look around at the glassy-smooth surface of the water, the tips of tiny ripples glinting in the leftover light of the sunset. It seems to stretch all the way to the distant shadows of the mountains. “Thank you.” The voice behind me says, and the hands release my face, sliding down to rest gently on my shoulders. I turn, flapping my hands through the water, to face my rescuer. Large eyes greet mine, reflecting the subtle light back like a cat’s, partially obscured by long, wet hair plastered across her face and dripping down her bare shoulders.
“What is…” My voice is cracked and hoarse. I clear my throat and look away. “What happened?”
The corner of the girl’s mouth quirks up. “You changed the world. In quite a big way, too. Not many people get to do that.”
I nod my head, pretending to understand. “I’m not dead, then?”
She thinks about it for a second, bottom lip caught between sharp teeth. “No. You’re not, at least according to most definitions. But according to some others you could be.”
“Okay. I’ll take probably alive over dead any day. But is this real?” “Are you real?” “Are you?”
“I think, therefore I am. What about you?”
I laugh. “Good answer. I could say the same thing.”
She nods, eyes roving, searching for something. “Come on, let’s go down.” “Down?” “To the bottom. Under water. There’s something you need to see.”
“But I can’t breath under water.”
“This is your world. You control it. Now let’s go.” She grabs my hand, fingers tight enough around my wrist to cause bruising, and slips into the water.
I’m pulled down after her, barely grabbing a breath before I am submerged. Everything’s muted under the water, both light and sound reduced to vague approximations of what they were before. I pull against her hand, kicking out uselessly, but she continues swimming down, just a dark shadow against the gloom.