Elijah woke up on a beach, disoriented. A bright sun, high in the sky, was hurting his eyes. He rolled over to his side to shield his face. He'd barely begun to heave himself up when a strong wave of nausea overwhelmed him. Resting on his hands and knees, he emptied the content of his stomach on the sand.
"Fuck," he mumbled afterwards, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His tongue tasted horrible, but his nausea had faded somewhat.
He got up and removed as much sand as possible from his body. His clothes were uncomfortable, wet in the back but dry in front, where they'd been exposed to the sun. He walked to the riverside and bent down, scooping water in his hands. He sniffed it. It smelled salty, but he drank it anyway, hoping to wash the taste of vomit from his mouth.
He sat down, head in his hands, trying to recall how he'd gotten to where he was. Only flashes came back to him. He remembered kissing Dom, being sucked into that crystal ball, falling in the river... After that, his mind was blank, but his current state was enough to tell him that he'd drowned.
His stomach tied itself into a tight knot. He was alone, he had no idea where he was; he was thirsty and uncomfortable. He squeezed his eyes shut and bit his fist, holding back the tears of panic. He took a deep breath. "All right," he said out loud, standing up.
There wasn't a sign of life as far as he could see. There was the river in front of him and sand all around, and far on the horizon were mountain peaks bathed in clouds. If he wanted to find fresh water and shade, and perhaps even other people, his best bet was to head in the direction of those mountains, and hope he would make it there before he passed out from exhaustion.
So he started walking.
Walking in the sand was difficult and tiresome. Elijah considered himself to be in good physical shape, but the sun was burning his face and he hadn't had anything to drink since the previous night. Each of his steps seemed heavier than the last, until he couldn't muster the strength to lift his foot off the ground and fell to his knees as he tried to go forward.
He didn't get up. He lay down on the sand, curled up in a ball. He closed his eyes and faded into a semi-sleep. Behind his eyelids appeared a gray screen over which a horizontal white line ran a hypnotic course. As he stared at the line, his body became lighter and lighter, until he couldn't feel the ground. He was floating, the pain and thirst gone.
He wondered if this was what it was like to die. Maybe he was dying, right there, in that desert, without water and shade. He hadn't pictured his death like this. He hadn't really pictured his death at all, and why would he have had, at twenty-one? But the thought didn't bother him much; it was nice, peaceful, and quiet. The prospect of death seemed comfortable and almost liberating compared to this place.
He wondered if his friends and family would come looking for him. Dom had seen him being sucked into the crystal ball. Would he tell others what had happened? Would they send rescue teams through the crystal ball? He pictured them finding his body, dehydrated and cooked by the sun, lying in the middle of the desert, a feast for vultures.
But what if they hadn't believed Dom? What if Dom hadn't been able to prove it, hadn't been able to activate the ball again? An image passed through his mind of Dom in prison, accused of a murder he hadn't committed, claiming his innocence and crying over the death of his friend -- a friend who could've become much more.
A bitter sense of unfinished business rushed over him. He had so much left to do. He tried to open his eyes and get up, start walking again, but he felt too far gone, too detached, to do anything. The only sound he heard, except for his own breath and heartbeat, was a light, constant swish, swish that rose from the ground. It grew louder and louder, then it stopped entirely.
Reality harshly wrapped itself around Elijah again. He opened his eyes. Two brown boots were right by his face. Then two crouching legs entered his blurred field of vision. "Hey, kid, are you all right?" A hand touched his shoulder gently.
"Am not a kid," Elijah mumbled, sitting up slowly.
The man in front of him smiled. "It appears I am just in time. The sun is unforgiving today," he said, standing up and looking at the sky. He untied a flask that hung from his belt and handed it to Elijah. "You must be thirsty."
"Water?" Elijah took the flask hesitantly.
The man nodded. "I would advise not to drink it all at once. The closest source of fresh water is still two hours away by foot."
Elijah gulped half of the water in one go. "I don't think water's ever tasted so good. Thank you," he said as he handed back the flask.
"I have my own. Keep this one," the man said.
Elijah stood up slowly, wavering on his weak legs. "I don't know how to thank you," Elijah said, and he tucked the neck of the flask in the belt loop of his jeans.
"Better?" the man asked.
"Slightly," he said. "Where am I?" He refrained from telling the man how he'd gotten to this place. Every explanation he could think of seemed sillier than the last, and for a few seconds he wondered if the sun hadn't somehow broiled his brain and altered his memory.
"You're on the Low Isle, a little east of the Kajey River."
"Kajey? Am I even still in America?"
The man frowned. "Show me your arm, kid." Elijah obliged. "That's what I thought. You're not branded."
The man pushed the sleeve up his forearm, exposing three elongated ovals in a triangular position inside a circle. It seemed to have been burned over another long, linear scar. "Every living man, woman and child in Lahara bears one. It shows your allegiance."
"Lahara? I've never heard of this place."
"You came through the portal above the Kajey, did you?" he asked. Elijah's mouth fell open with surprise. That man had mentioned portals like they were the most natural things in the world. Elijah thought for a moment that he was dreaming; but the world around him seemed tangible, and his physical exhaustion was definitely real.
He realized after a short moment that he'd been asked a question. His confusion must have been showing, because the man had an oddly amused smile on his face. "Uh, er, yes, the portal. I came through it," he blurted, nodding. "So what is this place? Another dimension? Another planet?"
"I've never given it much thought. Here, we just call where you're from 'the old world'."
"How do I get back home, then?"
"You need to use a portal similar to the one you used to get here."
"The one above the river is a bit out of reach," Elijah said. "Are there others?"
"There is one in each of the temple in Lahara, but--"
Elijah's eyes lit up. "Can you tell me how to get there?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, but unfortunately, the keys that activate the portals are long lost."
"Shit," Elijah said faintly. He sat back down on the sand, disheartened. "Is there any other way for me to go back?"
"Not that I know of, I'm sorry," the man said. "Maybe Amath would know."
"Who's Amath?" Elijah asked.
"Amath is the guardian of earth. He protects those of us who refused to be oppressed by Zaphyr, the ruling king."
"And he'd be able to help me?"
"It's worth trying. The guardians were the ones who held the keys in older days. He might know of another way to send you home," the man said, extending Elijah a hand. "I can lead you to him. I'm going that way."
Elijah took his hand and pulled himself up. "They have water and food there, right?"
The man smiled. "And shade."
"Lead the way, then," Elijah said.
"I'm Salem, by the way," the man said as they started walking towards the mountains. "What's your name, kid?"
"Elijah," he said, then he added with a smile, "and I'm not a kid."
They made their way slowly towards the mountains. The initial energy boost Elijah had gotten from his water soon faded, but the walk was nonetheless easier than before, thanks to Salem's presence. He was significantly taller and stronger than Elijah, and carried him at times. It allowed Elijah to rest for a short period and gain enough energy to walk for half an hour or so, before Salem picked him up again.
Salem kept the conversation going and, seemingly understanding that Elijah preferred to save his energy for walking, did most of the talking. But it kept Elijah's mind off the ache in his body and the worry twisting his stomach, and for that he was grateful.
"Before Zaphyr came into power, each guardian controlled an element: earth, air, water, fire, light and time. People came in from the old world to pray to them, to give offerings or to ask for favors. For instance, if you lived near a river, you could ask Eza, guardian of water, to make it so that the river never got out of its bed and flooded your house. Nobody but the guardians lived in Lahara at the time, and the elemental keys allowed people to travel between the two worlds."
"The keys are the crystal balls, right?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never seen one," Salem said. "A crystal ball, you say?"
"About six inches wide," Elijah said. "They're very pretty, actually."
"They're very powerful, too. Each elemental key can activate any portal, in your world or here. But they're also important to the guardians because they are the sources of their powers. That's why the portals and keys are in temples, where the guardians dwell."
"So how comes there's a portal in my house?"
"I would guess that there was a temple there, once upon a time. Travels between the two worlds stopped when Zaphyr's reign begun."
"How long ago was that? Because my house is at least fifty years old."
"Four hundred years ago," Salem said, and, seeing Elijah's surprised expression, added, "Zaphyr doesn't age."
"Zaphyr was born in your world. At least, that's what people say. It's all myth and tales, now. He came to Lahara to ask a favor to the guardian of time, Aishkya. He wanted to turn back time, for a reason that nobody but him now knows. Aishkya refused. He killed her."
"He killed a guardian? He could do that?"
Salem nodded gravely. "Guardians are immortal, but they're not invincible. They do have healing powers, but there isn't much they can do for themselves when dealing with instant death such as beheading, which was how Aishkya died. Her powers passed on to Zaphyr after he killed her. He gained her immortality, her healing powers and her ability to control time, but that last power stayed dormant. He needed an elemental key to activate it; however, Aishkya had foreseen her death and destroyed hers. The other guardians knew the danger of letting Zaphyr gain Aishkya's full power, so they hid all the remaining keys, thus locking all the doors out of Lahara and imprisoning people in here."
"So the keys are somehow still accessible?" Elijah said, a glimmer of hope warming the pit of his stomach. "I mean, if the guardians hid their keys, and Amath's a guardian, then he'd know where they are."
"No, he doesn't know, and he doesn't know who knows. Initially, the guardians decided to keep their keys but protected their temples to keep Zaphyr and his knights away. Some guardians had use of an element that can hold a great offensive power, such as Xalnu, who controls fire. If someone ever got through the protection surrounding the fire temple, he could burn them alive if it came down to it."
"But how did that work for, say, light?"
"Exactly. There isn't much offensive power in light, much like in time. Zaphyr knew this, and he set his goal to breech the light temple. The defenses held for a while - Mishook made his temple invisible after Zaphyr took over, so the knights probably had a hard time finding the altar inside the temple, where the key rests. But they eventually did. Luckily, Zaphyr never got his hands on that key - one of his knights betrayed him and brought the key back to Mishook."
"First time I've ever heard of good treason," Elijah commented.
"He's considered the first Amathian. Even though he never specifically allied himself with Amath and has really no relation to the Amathians of today, he was the first man in Lahara to defy Zaphyr. After the failed attack on the temple of light, it was decided that it was too dangerous for guardians to keep their keys. That treacherous knight was sent to gather all the keys and hide them."
"So he'd know where they are!" Elijah exclaimed, then realized that Salem was talking about events that took place some four centuries ago. "Or maybe his great-great-great-grand-children would?"
"Zaphyr tortured him to make him talk. He never succeeded, and eventually killed the knight. The secret of where the keys are, one would assume, died with him."
"So Amath doesn't know where the keys are."
"No, but he might know of another way to help you. I think it's worth a try."
"But if the temples are protected, how will we get to him?"
"The temple is located deep in the Fozea Forest, which is enchanted so that only people who bear Amath's mark can enter it."
"Oh, so that's why you have the-- wait a minute," Elijah stopped in his track. "How am I supposed to enter the forest?"
Salem looked at his feet, clearly uncomfortable with the question.
"No. No fucking way. Absolutely not," Elijah said, crossing his arms. "I'll just find another way to get back home."
"Listen to me," Salem said, and Elijah thought he looked rather annoyed. "I'm giving you easy access to one of the temples. You can wander around Lahara for your entire life looking for an answer, but this," he pointed northeast, "is your best chance."
"I don't want to be marked like that," Elijah said. "It's permanent, and it probably hurts like hell."
"Dying from heat stroke in the desert will probably be painful and permanent as well. You cannot stay here," Salem said. "Look at yourself, you can barely walk."
"I don't have to meet Amath, I'll figure something out," Elijah said, but he hoped that Salem would just offer to accompany him wherever he would decide to go, because he had no idea what he would do if Salem actually did leave him stranded in the middle of the desert.
"Be reasonable," Salem said. He grabbed Elijah's hand and pulled him forward. Elijah tried to resist, but it took very little strength to overpower him. He fell face first on the sand. He wanted to cry.
Salem crouched next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "The mountains aren't much further. I think I can carry you until we reach them."
Elijah slowly climbed up on Salem's back. He rested his head on Salem's shoulder and sighed. "I just want to be back home, Salem," he whispered.
"I know," Salem said, starting to walk again. "Rest."
Elijah woke up with a start. He hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep on Salem's back and it took him a few seconds to take in his surrounding. He was lying on one of a dozen cots in a large, poorly lit cave. Salem was sitting on a cot a few feet away, rolling between his thumb and forefinger a small medallion that hung around his neck.
"What is that?" Elijah asked.
Salem jumped up, brought out of his reverie. "A bittersweet memory," he said, looking melancholy, before tucking the medallion back inside his shirt. "Would you like something to eat?"
"God, yes! I could eat a horse."
"I'm sorry, we have no horse stored in these caves. There is dried fish, if you want meat."
"It's just an expression," Elijah said. "I'll take anything you have -- I'm starved."
"Follow me," Salem stepped off his cot. Elijah did the same, but his knees buckled under his weight. "Careful!" Salem said, catching him before he hit the floor.
"Thanks," Elijah said, getting back on his feet slowly. "I hadn't realized how tired my legs were."
"Shall I carry you again?" Salem asked with a teasing smile.
"I'm fine," Elijah said. "Just aching more than I thought. Give me a couple of minutes." He followed Salem to the next room, keeping a hand on the wall to remain steady.
"Stranded like that in the desert... the sun nearly killed you."
"Yeah, I think I'm pretty badly sunburnt," Elijah said, touching his cheek. "Ow. I must be all red."
"Actually, you were lying on your side when I found you, so your left cheek is much redder than the right one. But you do look burnt on both sides, kid."
"Why do you keep calling me kid? I'm twenty-one," Elijah said.
"Come, now. You cannot be a day older than sixteen."
"I am! I swear," Elijah said, hoping the annoyance that shone through his voice would convince Salem.
"Maybe you age slower in your world," Salem said, thoughtfully. "Aishkya is not here to control time anymore. It would make sense, after all, that it has not kept a similar rhythm in both worlds. How long is a day in your world?"
"Twenty-four hours," Elijah said.
"That is what it used to be here. It's twenty-eight now. We gain an hour every century or so," Salem said. "Please, sit," he added, indicating the low table in the middle of the room.
"Wow," Elijah said as he sat. "Time speeding up."
"Slowing down, actually," Salem corrected. "Days get longer and longer."
"Freaky. So that means I'm twenty-one in my world, but there's twenty-four hours a day... So in your world, I'd be... Add four hours a day, seven days per week -- you have seven days a week, right?"
Salem took his head out of the cupboard he'd been looking through. "Yes. We still have 7 days a week and 365 per year."
"That's an extra twenty-eight hours per week, so basically that's an extra day per week, times fifty-two for a year, for twenty-one years -- ugh, I hate math," he said, rubbing his eyes.
Salem laughed. "I'll take your word for it. You're 21."
"Thanks," Elijah said. "How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-three. A few years older than that, by your standards," Salem said. He put a loaf of bread and various fruits on the table. "We're out of fish, I'm afraid. We need to restock." He put a pitcher of water on the table and handed Elijah a cup.
"Where are we, exactly?" Elijah asked. He tore a piece of bread from the loaf and ate it. It was dry and stale, but it wasn't moldy as he'd feared.
"In the Amathian nursery," Salem said as he sat opposite Elijah and grabbed an apple from the pile of fruits on the table. "Children cannot be born in the forest, as they come into the world unbranded. Our women come to this nursery to give birth. Newborns are branded here before they can go back home with their mothers."
"So that's where I'll be branded too," Elijah said. The remainder of what was awaiting him made the bread harder to swallow, all of a sudden.
"That was the plan, yes," Salem said. "But I've had time to think while you rested."
Elijah looked at him eagerly, bread forgotten on the table.
"I can understand why you'd want to avoid branding. It's so terribly painful. I think your best odds are still to meet Amath, simply because I know how to enter the temple. But if you prefer, I can accompany you to the air temple. I don't know how to get in - I've tried and failed. But if you want to try, I can lead you there."
"And if I can't get in?"
"We come back here and you get branded, or you go on and visit the other temples."
"All the other temples are on the High Isle. It's where Zaphyrians live; it's not safe for Amathians. With that brand on my arm, I'm a kill-on-sight target. It would be too--" He stopped talking and turned around. "Quiet," he said.
Elijah listened carefully, and heard scratching and clicking. It came from the room where they'd been earlier, where the cots were.
Salem stood up and slowly tiptoed towards the door. "Stay here," he whispered, before moving out of Elijah's sight.
Elijah held his breath when a door creaked on its hinges. Voices flowed into the room, carrying inane talk about the weather. "Oh, thank Eza, it's you," he heard Salem say. Elijah relaxed; they were friends, then.
"Quite a welcome," a man said. "You can put down the sword, now."
"Right," Salem said. "My apologies."
"Dear Salem, you worry so much," a woman said.
"Where have you been?" Salem asked.
"We were out hunting," the woman said. "We're low on food supplies. It was the perfect opportunity, with no one in the nursery at the moment."
"You shouldn't leave the place for so long," Salem said with a slightly reproachful tone. "I arrived hours ago and the cave was unguarded."
"Hours!?" the man exclaimed. "Salem, I know the fire will last for days still, but the storm was last night. The Chosen One could be wandering on the shore as we speak. What are you waiting for? You have to find him before Zaph-- What?"
Elijah hadn't seen what had taken place, but he knew Salem had just done something to shut the man up. It was too late, however. Elijah was already up and on his way to the next room when the man had finally taken the hint and piped down.
Salem was standing in front of an elderly man, and a woman of the same age was sitting on the cot next to them. Salem was glaring at the man, and Elijah was relieved that look wasn't aimed at him. There was a sense of power and deep self-confidence in Salem that surprised Elijah; Salem had so far been light humored, patient and understanding, but the stance he had now was unsettling. It was imposing.
Elijah realized he knew next to nothing about the man who'd gained his trust so easily. He'd figured Salem was just a random nice guy who'd accidentally run into him and saved his life out of mercy. But there was something about him, now, and about the way the old man reacted to his anger, that suggested to Elijah there might be more to Salem than that.
"Salem? What is he talking about?" Elijah said, his voice much softer and nicer than he'd intended, mostly due to the death glare on Salem's face. But that expression faded when he heard Elijah's voice.
Salem turned to him. "I'm sorry Elijah, I hadn't--"
"Oh by Xalnu, you found him," the man said, and he threw himself to the floor, kneeling low and touching the ground at Elijah's feet.
"Get up, Garlaeo, you fool," Salem said, softly kicking the man's haunch.
He looked up at Salem. "You did tell him, did you?"
Salem glared at him in cold silence.
"You didn't tell him," the man said matter-of-factly, getting up.
"Tell me what?" Elijah said.
"There's a reason I didn't tell you," Salem said. "Garlaeo, Isolde, leave us for a moment, would you?"
The couple exited quietly through the door behind them.
"Follow me," Salem said. He walked past Elijah into the small kitchen-like room where they'd been sitting earlier, and re-opened the food cupboard. From the highest shelves he took two yellowed scrolls, which he laid on the table. He unrolled one, looked at it and put it aside. He unrolled the other one and handed to Elijah. "There it is," he said. "Read the passage called 'Aishkya's last prophecy'."
Elijah scanned the scroll and found the passage Salem was referring to near the bottom.
When a black shadow covers the sky's night
"What does it mean?" Elijah said.
"We believe it announces the coming of the chosen one, the one who will defeat Zaphyr and restore a real guardian of time in Lahara. I've told you, time is slowing down now that she's gone, and no one is there to fix it. Days grow longer and longer, and nights do the same. What happens when plants born in the night can't even live long enough to see the light of day? If night lasts so long that all green things die? Animals and men will not last long after that. And if time is currently slowing down at the rate of an hour a century, there's no guarantee that the speed of its increase won't change to an hour a year, or even an hour a week. Without a guardian, time is unstable. That's why it's imperative that a new guardian of time be named."
"And I'm supposed to do that?"
"Read it again," Salem said. "It speaks of a black shadow covering the sky: last night was the new moon, and the storm clouds hid the stars, rendering the sky a pure black. It also speaks of a burning forest, and the Orbi Forest, east of the Kajey River, has been on fire for days now. Finally, it says, 'From air to water the chosen shall fall', and you came in Lahara through the portal over the Kajey, rather than a portal in a temple."
"Prophecies are nothing but pure guesses," Elijah said, putting the scroll back on the table.
"Not Aishkya's. Her prophecies unmistakably come to pass. Guardian of time, she had knowledge of past, present and future."
"Then it's a coincidence," Elijah said. "It's not about me. I'm sorry, but I'm not some kind of storybook hero. Find yourself another savior."
"I believe it's about you," Salem said. "And if I'm right, there's nothing either one of us can do that will change that. It is your destiny, but while your purpose is set in stone, the path you take to achieve it is anything but. I was only offering my help."
"So what were you planning to do? Just guide me to places you want me to go, under the pretense of helping me go back home? Tell me honestly, you never had any intention of leaving after leading me to the air temple, did you?"
"No, I never did," Salem said. "But try to understand why I didn't tell you, Elijah. How do you tell someone they're supposed to save the world? I was expecting you would say this. I was even expecting you to run away."
"You wouldn't be that far from the truth," Elijah said. "I'm leaving."
"Then I won't stop you, but take this," Salem said. He took the two scrolls on the table and handed them to Elijah. "and I'll pack something for you to eat on the road." He grabbed the remainder of the food from the table and went into the next room, where he found a bag under one of the cots.
"What are they?" Elijah said as he unrolled one of the scrolls.
"The one you've partially read contains Amathianís myths. Read it if you wish, and may you understand one day why I did what I did. The other is a map of Lahara. It indicates the location of all the temples and villages on the two Isles."
The one Elijah had unrolled was the map. It was hand drawn and quite detailed. Lahara was made out of two islands separated by the Kajey, the river he'd almost drowned in when he'd arrived in Lahara. There were deserts on either side of the river, but on the eastern shore, the desert was separated from an immense forest by mountains. He was somewhere in those mountains.
He searched for villages nearby, but other than the one in the forest, the nearest one was on the other side of the river. "Castletown?" Elijah asked. "Is that where Zaphyr lives?"
"Don't go there," Salem said, "I realize you're not particularly happy with Amathians right now, but going straight to our enemy will not help you. He too believes that prophecy to be true. He's looking for you."
"Well, if the prophecy's true, then he can't hurt me. 'No matter what anyone does, the outcome will be the same'. That's what you said, right?"
"But you believe it won't come to be," Salem said. "And if you're right, then you could be in danger."
"If it's not true, then I'm no threat to Zaphyr, and he has no reason to hurt after me."
"But he doesn't believe that," Salem said.
"Thank you for the twisted logic," Elijah said. "So no matter what, no one can help me."
Salem sat on one of the cots. "You know you have my help, should you ever want it."
"I'll find my way back home by myself, thanks," Elijah said coldly. He grabbed the bag Salem had packed for him and stuffed the scrolls in it. He noticed Salem cringe when he heard the noise of rumpled paper, and purposely shoved the scrolls in deeper, no doubt damaging them.
"I'll take this as well," Elijah said as he grabbed the water flask Salem had given him earlier.
Salem closed his eyes and gave him a small approving nod. It irritated Elijah. The harsher and colder he tried to be, the calmer Salem was.
He stomped towards the left-side door. He stopped midway to the door, turned around, and looked at the door on his right. "Fuck," he muttered. He looked at Salem, expecting him to say which door he should take. Salem was busying himself with the laces on his shirt, avoiding Elijah's gaze; but he was smiling. Infuriated, Elijah made a beeline for the left-side door, the one the old couple had used earlier.
"Watch your step," Salem said without looking up, "there are dead bodies everywhere in these caves. Many of Zaphyr's men have died in here, looking for this room or a passage to the Forest. You're heading into the most complex labyrinth you'll ever see in your lifetime." He looked up at Elijah and grinned. "Good luck."
"Fuck you," Elijah said, and he slammed the door so hard behind him that one of the hinges let go. There were torches burning near the door, so he unhooked one from the wall and took it with him. As he stormed off, he promised himself he would never be so trusting and naive again.