The Ogres & the Stars
I was barely seventeen when I decided to cross the black deserts of the Kai and brave the deadly midnight dunes of Kirrel, said to be full of lying ghosts and hungry, vile beasts.
No longer a child, dressed now in sacred star-patterned robes of blue and white worn by the men of the Kaihk, my parents wept as I left with all I owned upon my back — and little it was. There was nothing more they could do but curse and weep at my foolishness, for I was a man and they could no longer protect me from my dreams.
For many weeks, I wandered northwards along roads and wild trails, traveling from village to village, bringing news and the blessings of the Kaihk in exchange for shelter and food. I saved what coin I had or could gather for the trading posts at the edge of the Kai. In most places I was welcomed openly with great rejoicing, and in others I moved on swiftly. Only once did I encounter an ogre.
No, I should not say I encountered it, but only saw signs of its occupation in the rocky caves along that lonely stretch of wilderness I passed through. Truly, it was as close as I would wish to come to an ogre or I would not be alive to tell this tale. I escaped that place as quickly as my feet would carry me.
Then, when the moons had grown full and faded a handful of times, I found my robes a-stirred by the ill-wind that blows cold off the black sands of the Kai. The lonely orange specks of distant fires speckled the dark plain below me, marking the camps of the nomads who lived on the edge of the world.
Some said they were mad for living so close to the cursed lands. I found them no more mad than other men.
None of them knew of a way through the deserts or across the dunes to the fabled mountains of Sirral, and when I spoke of my journey, I heard again the warnings of evil ghosts and hungry beasts who haunted the land, who led astray and murdered all travelers so that none had ever come out of the deserts alive. Nor were there any brave or foolish enough to accompany me. It was as expected.
I purchased the supplies I thought necessary, and was robbed of what remained of my purse while I slept under the stars at the edge of camp. But what does a dead man need with coin? So I forgave it easily enough.
Under the morning sun, swathed in the sacred blue and white robes of the Kaihk, I set out into the desert, northwards towards mountains that only might exist, and a death that certainly did.
I wandered the black desert sands like a mad prophet in search of the forgotten gods, caught between the anvil of the black sands and the unrelenting hammering of the sun, and my eyes played tricks upon me I did not heed. Even when men rose up around me, talking like old friends and offering drink and sustenance, I ignored them, walking through them like the phantasms they were.
Perhaps I should not say walk, for the heat allowed only a stagger, like that of a drunk, though I had precious little enough to drink, and only water, sparingly, for I did not know how long my journey might take.
When I chanced to camp in the cool shade of a tall dune during the next day, both body and mind gave way to an exhaustion that sank me into a slumber lasting until the cold evening wind awoke me. Though I confess I do not know what evening it woke me upon, only that I was grateful to have awakened at all.
I thought the lost days of travel ill fortune at first, then luck later, for as I climbed to the top of the great dune, I saw below me and northwards the deserts glowing in the night with colors I have never seen before, and I knew those places to be cursed and avoided.
Thereafter, I camped during the day, sprawled out upon my prayer rug beneath a make-shift tent made of my robe, in whatever shade I could scavenge from the unbearable sun.
There was a day when the heat of the black sands had burned blisters into my feet, even through my sandals, and it was then the great monsters of the desert became known to me. A thunderous sound I care not to describe the nature of scraped harshly across the still desert air, and my blood froze at its sound. I climbed the tall dune in whose shadow I had camped and stared down at a scorpion of hideous size and mottled color. A single claw was as long as twice my height!
Had it spied me, my dagger would no more have protected me than a thorn would protect against a lion, but the monster fought a greater monster: a thing I cannot describe except to say it was like a worm, but was not a worm, and of the same horrendous size as the ungodly scorpion!
I fled before either noticed me or I became trampled beneath them as they fought. I do not know who the winner of that battle was, though I favor the scorpion in my musings, for it was the less blasphemous of the two things.
But without the shifting colors of the desert night to guide me across the dunes of Kirrel, I stumbled into the cursed regions and spent hours bathed in their unearthly glow as I sought a safe stretch of the desert lands. I suspect that light was a poison that made me sick or ate away my spirit, for I fell ill and was racked with chill and fever, my flesh grew pallid and my stomach would hold nothing, though it had little to hold regardless.
I do not know if what I saw during that time were the desert ghosts or fever-dreams caused by my own sickness. I treated them the same, when I was coherent enough to do so. I know I wept at times, and screamed as well, for no reason I can recall. And I have a fevered memory of coming upon gargantuan ruins of gray stone rising up out of the sands, as of a lost city, but unlike any city I have ever imagined or seen, and of thinking to take shelter in them until my sickness broke…but I do not know what happened to me in that place.
The sickness left me, at last, lost in the vast desert with many days forgotten behind me, but all my supplies were gone, for I had lost what remained of them in my fevered, pointless wandering. What could I do but face north again and go forward — put my trust in the gods?
By fate or chance or destiny — or perhaps the old gods even granted me an unspoken prayer — I came at last to the edge of the black deserts of the Kai, where the dark sand mixes with the white sands beneath the Sirral, whose gray bulk I could see rising on the horizon come the dawn. And before me, an oasis with scattered ruins around it, as though men had lived there in ancient days.
I rushed heedlessly to the oasis, for death had no hold upon me in fear. I would die as swiftly without water and food as I would should some terrible beast or bandit live here. But luck remained with me, and I refilled those waterskins left to me and collected nuts and fruits from the trees around the shores without incident.
I would have ventured to sleep within the ancient buildings, but feared tempting fate with poisonous spiders and unquiet ghosts that might have claimed them in the aeons since any man last slept there. I dozed in the unnatural quiet by the water’s edge, but was unmolested. I like to think the robes of the Kaihk protected me, that the ghosts there knew them and let me pass. Though I know not why I think that.
In the morning, I set out across the hilly scrubland beyond the ruins for the mountains of Sirral, which stretched from one edge of the sky to the other.
Many days did I wander through that wilderness, though no living thing ever approached me. It was a haunted, empty land, without even birds in the sky. Yet always I felt the eyes of ghosts upon me, and shuddered, but none ever made themselves apparent. Sudden noises — of falling rocks, snapping sticks, the swish of tall, dry grasses where no breeze blew — arose out of the otherwise quiet land, as if to remind me I was watched. Elsewhere, I would have thought it to be a lion, but it felt like no lion and did not stalk like one. I do not know what it was.
Many days I walked towards the mountains, finding streams of cool water, and berries and nuts to sustain myself, but no small game ever entered my crude traps, nor passed my eyes. Then I saw the glittering spires of a city I had dreamed of as a child, a lost city of the ancients, nestled in the opening to a valley between two vast peaks.
At first the city was empty and silent, and I grew too comfortable among its broken walls and shattered towers. I lit a fire one night in a square I had set camp within, to keep away the bite of the chill air flowing down from the mountain and through the abandoned streets, but it was that selfsame light and heat which attracted it out of the blue twilight gloom of the dead city streets.
It moved quietly for its size and was upon me nearly before I realized, a hulking, brutish shadow made of the night. I leapt up and tried to flee, stumbling across a pile of shifting rubble, pressing myself up against a wall, dagger drawn — feeling much as I had when I had looked down upon the great, mottled scorpion in the deserts of the Kai.
The flame cast the giant’s jaundiced skin a deep yellow, and the crags of its crude face and misshapen muscles of its body drew bold, black shadows across its horrid form. It snarled and raged at me like an animal protecting its territory; I trembled, holding out the dagger though it was as dangerous as a toy to the beast.
Then the ogre struck me down and dragged away, my head swimming in pain — I recall a momentary vision of the stars receding into darkness, though I do not know if it was through a cavern entrance fading behind me or my own consciousness slipping away. Then disconnected memories of being carried limp through strange tunnels lit with glowing lichens, which may have been nightmare-dreams.
I awoke in a freezing chamber lined with frosted stone, and nearly wished for the heat of the desert. Around me was like the center of a great palace fallen into the earth, with a broken throne set in a gloomy alcove upon a high dais, the whole ringed by broken statues of beautiful men and women, each set upon their own pedestal in their own grotto. The walls between each were smoothed and carven with intricate bas-reliefs depicting a blasphemous history that seemed to tell of men living as beasts and ruled over by ogrish-gods, in some forgotten age when the shining cities of the Sirral yet lived.
All this was abused, broken and defaced, faces scratched and cracked, breasts shattered, carvings gouged and smashed as if by an angry child of great strength…all but the unreachable ceiling of the chamber glittering with entrancing specks of light like stars in the night sky.
There was no exit to be seen in the thick blackness of the shadows, and so I huddled in a dark niche trying to keep warm and praying to the gods for protection from what I spied settled upon the throne…a beast who sat and whispered bestial and barbarous tongue to the glittering lights above. When it finally turned its eyes upon me to roar and curse, its sclera glowed with an unholy blue fire.
Over the days or weeks or months of my imprisonment, it beat me and used me in cruel and foul ways, the blasphemous history upon the defaced walls a mocking portrayal of my own hell as I lived each horror. I do not know the count of days that passed for I had no sun or moon to judge; I knew only my fitful sleep on the frozen stone, foul-tasting water and insects and grubs forced upon me for sustenance with a deep grunting I took for cruel and amused laughter.
My star-patterned robes, the sacred robes of the Kaihk, became filthy and torn, and I did not notice. I was bruised and aching, body twisted from abuses and badly healed bones, and I did not notice. I was half-frozen and starved, sick and fevered…I was more animal than man, and I did not notice.
Driven by base hatred and instinct, by some core spirit that had not yet been stripped away by the ogre’s tortures, I waited until the beast slept upon the cracked throne. Waited until it had finished grunting and whispering to the stars in the ceiling. Waited until its eyes grew bright with blue flame, and it collapsed in a rageful fit of screaming what must have been curses in even its foul tongue.
Then I stealthily crept up those stairs and stabbed its eyes and cut its throat with the small paring knife it had left with me, failing to fear such a tiny thing. It fell to me as the defaced history showed the god-ogres of the Sirral falling to tiny men.
In the flailing beast’s wild death throes, it struck me and cast me tumbling down the dais stair, but the beast expired while I lay unconscious and bloodied. When I awoke, still dazed, I climbed to the top of the dais beside a river of black blood that had flowed down the cold stone from the dead beast’s slit throat.
I made certain of the kill then collapsed upon the throne to rest…
Above me shone the tiny diamonds, scattered through the velvet darkness above, gleaming and winking. I thought I dreamed. The stars seemed to whisper and I could almost understand what they said, almost understand the meaning of the words, and I knew if only I listened a little longer I would understand…
I was barely seventeen when I decided to cross the black deserts of the Kai and brave the deadly midnight dunes of Kirrel to seek ghostly cities that would not leave my dreams.
I have not noticed the passing of this year, nor centuries, as my body grew twisted and misshapen upon that throne, as my face and form became crude and horrid, for I can almost understand what the stars are saying, almost understand the meaning of the whispered words.
And if only I listen a little longer I know I will understand…
Copyright (c)2007 Raven Daegmorgan