Phoenix of the West
Lyeshe sighed wearily, and spoke once more-- this time with painstaking certainty masking tightly-leashed rage. "So you're saying that the harbor will be closed for how much longer?"
The servant shifted uncomfortably, his eyes avoiding the Dragon's. "A day, sir. Two at most."
Lyeshe stood from his desk, and moved towards the man with gentle but surprising speed; in the back of the room, something made a strangled choking sound. Lyeshe forced the man's chin up with his thin fingers, and looked the servant dead in the eyes. "A day."
The servant nodded mutely, bowed, and made haste from the room.
Without turning, Lyeshe played with the steel chain in his hands. "I'm sorry, Osol. Did my sudden movement harm you?"
The chain lead to a collar which sang soft songs of triumph at its mistress' behest. Osol continued to stare silently out of the window, looking patiently to the south, from where she knew her help would come.
"So what you're saying is that I should follow you out into the desert, alone, to find a place that may or may not be a figment of your imagination, because a spirit who dwells there wants to help me."
Sanan chewed the corner of her lip sheepishly. "Yes."
Oteitani's deadpan was relentless. "A spirit that I have never met."
"And he called me by name."
Sanan sighed. "I know it's crazy, Ota. But don't you think the fact it knew your name means something? Come on, let it help you. Let me help you."
Oteitani looked pointedly at the wound on Sanan's side. "Shouldn't you be taking care of that, instead of leading me into the desert? It looks like it's still seeping."
Sanan covered her wound protectively, scowling. "I may not be touched by a demon, Ota, but I can take care of myself. I'm trying to be NICE to you."
Oteitani eyed her critically. "I'm sure you are. All right, we'll leave tonight."
For once, the monkey was oddly silent.
Taban gritted his teeth and mustered a smile for one of the villagers who was talking about how he had handcrafted the bow he was carrying himself. If it weren't for these people, I would be there by now. I could go faster. Osol would be safe by now. He dismissed the thoughts has he had a thousand times before; these people were Osol's family, her blood. And despite being adopted into their family, it was a connection that even Taban's bond with her could not match; they deserved to have a hand in rescuing her, as well.
Khadka sidled up next to Taban; the young man who spoke so highly of his bow had rejoined his friends. "You have the most impatient eyes I've ever seen, my son."
Taban smiled with chagrin. "You think I am ungrateful to the men who have come to risk their lives for my sister."
Kadkha shook his head. "No, I think you are full of concern for your sister. Which is admirable. Osol is strong, and I'm sure expects us. It is easy to hold on when you have faith."
Taban's face darkened. Violet eyes flickered across the rest of the group before returning to Khadka in all seriousness, his voice lowered so that only the two men could hear. "The collar she wears dulls the memory, Khadka. The mind becomes so dark and slippery there are no handholds of faith to cling to." His eyes went far away for a moment. "I know."
"You have not called me 'Father' since we left the village," Khadka said, abruptly changing the subject from one that was so obviously filled with pain.
"Have I done something to offend you, Taban?"
The Exalt turned to Khadka in surprise. "Of course not. It is the opposite, in fact."
"What are you talking about? You have not offended me."
"I may not have offended you, but I was unable to save your daughter from Lyeshe. When Osol is safe in your arms, and your mother is telling tales of our exploits around the fire, then I shall call you father."
Taban spurred his horse further ahead; he knew they should be reaching the port by nightfall, but the jittery feeling in his arms and legs would not cease; his heart was firmly planted in his throat, and he imagined it would remain there until this ordeal was over.
Soon, sister. May the Sun grant you more strength than he has granted me.
"You have no idea where we are, do you?"
"I know right where we are, Ota. Trust me." Sanan's eyes darted around uncertainly. "You don't have to be the world's best tracker to get someplace you've already been, y'know."
"So why aren't we there yet?"
The woman flashed a crooked grin. "Maybe I'm taking my time. Maybe it's a nice day and I like the sun on my face."
"Maybe you're wasting my time."
"Maybe you have no idea how to talk to a lady." Sanan laughed and spurred her horse faster. "We'll be there soon enough."
Misgiving clouded Oteitani's face, but he was helpless except to follow.
The oasis nearly ambushed the two travelers; it was the sort of place one does not notice until you're tripping over the vines on the ground. Oteitani's face instinctively relaxed into an expression of pleasure as the cool air touched his travel-weary face. Sanan's expression remained sharp, almost fearful.
"I told you we weren't lost," Sanan said. Her usual amiable confidence sounded watery and thin.
Oteitani unslung his twin axes with a casual movement. "So where's this god who is so eager to help me?"
"Put your axes away, Ota. You'll offend him."
"If he knows me by name, I'm sure he knows I'll come armed. And you shouldn't invite guests whose habits will offend you, anyway." He strode deeper into the lush wild of the oasis. "It's bad logic."
"The ways of gods are nothing like the ways of mortal men, Oteitani." A droopy palm tree with three thick trunks stemming from one massive base rustled as it spoke.
Oteitani raised both dark brows in surprise. "Are you the spirit who has sent for me?"
The tree slowly drew itself to its full height as the sound of creaking wood filled the oasis. "I am Kadir, the eternal trident of the south, keeper of the blood of Gaia in a barren land, and ruler of all I survey."
Sanan looked properly deferential, whereas Oteitani cocked his head to one side, both axes still at the ready, and regarded Sanan frankly. "This is the one who said that he could cure me?"
Sanan nodded, nonplussed. The wood spirit rustled his fronds in displeasure. "Please address all questions to me, your superior, and the one chance you have to redeem your sorry soul, mortal."
Oteitani turned, giving Kadir his undivided attention. "I apologize, spirit, it's just that I've met other gods before, and I was expecting something more.. well.. something more." Oteitani flushed a little. "But no matter, I am aware that looks can be decieving."
"You have no idea, mortal," the tree boomed. "This woman has told me that your soul is worth saving from the Anathema who touched you. You must prove this to me."
"What would you have me do, spirit?"
"You must plant trees. You must expand this oasis until it overreaches the desert, destroying whatever small gods stand in your way. Yes, you must irrigate the land, until Gaia's blood has spread my bounty across the face of Creation. Vines will reach their emerald fingers across the plains, sand giving way to dark earth.." Oteitani turned to Sanan, the spirit obviously lost in his own thoughts.
"He wants me to be a farmer, Sanan?" he whispered, amused.
"He didn't tell me what he would require of you."
"Seems a bit ridiculous, don't you think?"
"I've never been one to question the gods, Ota."
"Well, I'll show you how, then." He raised his voice, interrupting Kadir. "Pardon me, spirit, but you don't actually possess the power to cure me, do you?"
"Of course I do." Kadir was indignant, the knots in his trunk gaping like slackjawed mouths at the implication.
The monkey in the back of Oteitani's mind shook his head. "You're lying," he said flatly.
Kadir flailed his branches helplessly. "Well.. I know someone who can help you."
"Lying again, spirit."
"May the Neverborn take you and your Anathema tricks," spat the god. "You never should have used your powers on me."
Oteitani turned to Sanan curiously. "What did this spirit do or say to make you bring me here?"
Sanan crossed her arms over her wound, which had begun seeping more rapidly than before. "Nothing, really." Her eyes darted about nervously.
"Sanan, did this spirit harm you?" the mercenary closed her eyes and swallowed thickly as Oteitani spun to face Kadir once more. "Heal what you have done to her, spirit, or I swear I will reduce your entire oasis to twigs and dust."
"You will do no such thing!"
Never looking away from Kadir, Oteitani's axes flew, chopping deeply into nearby palm trees. "Are you so certain?"
"Wait, wait! Stop, please, prince of the Earth, do not destroy my domain. I will heal your friend." The tree slumped once more.
"Very well, spirit. Heal her, then."
Streams of viridian light shot in an arc from the spirit's fronds and sank into Sanan's wound, which closed quickly. "Your debt to me is paid, mortal," Kadir manages. "Leave my domain at once." Oteitani looked at the god. "...Please."
Oteitani shot a withering look to Sanan. "After you."
The setting sun made the inner sea look like molten iron as the large ship slowly became larger and larger from Osol's vantage-point at the window. Lyeshe slipped up behind her, placing his hands on her small shoulders.
He could not see the look of misery on her face, and she could not see the discomfort and fear in his.
"My ship will be here before the sun sets." His voice was smug.
"My brother will be here before your ship docks." Hers was even.
Banishing any misgiving from his face, he gently turned Osol to face him, his expression gentle, almost caring. "My treasure-- you are so much stronger than U.. than your brother. Look at you. Your memory is completely intact! You even have the autonomy to mouth off to me, if not the wisdom to know better. When your brother had worn the collar for this long, he had forgotten everything about himself, he had forgotten even how to use the chamber pot." Osol reddened, but Lyeshe continued to smile. "You are strong, you are brave and valliant. You are stronger than he. That young man did not free himself; he escaped my grasp in a series of.. unfortunate accidents.
"If he was not strong enough to free himself, what makes him think he can free you?" He released her shoulders and began to walk away. "If you are not strong enough to face me, what makes you think he is?"
Osol turned in stony silence to face the window once more. Lyeshe sat down at his desk, busying himself with paperwork, unaware of the tear which slowly slipped down his captive's cheek.
Khadka glanced at the setting sun, the squint of his eyes deepening the slight wrinkles beneath them. "We should reach the coast right as the sea swallows the sun." He glanced at Taban, giving the young man an encouraging smile. "You'll be swooping in to save your sister before you know it, son."
Taban, who had been silent most of the afternoon, looked up at Khadka-- water standing in his violet eyes. "Not me. Us. I may be.. what I am, but I could not do this alone." He hung his head, as if almost shamed.
Khadka reached over and squeezed his adopted son's shoulder, swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat. "Then it's a good thing you're not alone." He coughed and then patted Taban's back. "Let's hurry, son. Your sister's waiting for us."