As Lahn and Domio’s caravan traveled east, the landscape changed around them. The grasses in the fields they traveled grew yellow or brown and a fine red dust covered everything. The only other vegetation were brown, prickly bushes that grew to about knee height. Devoid of leaves, the bushes displayed thick thorns that wept a golden sap. During one of their rest periods, Lahn collected some of the thorns and placed them in a bag for study later. The sap, he noticed, dried clear and hard, like opaque glass. He rose and wiped his forehead with his forearm. Even this late in the day, the intense warmth made one sweat. His tunic was plastered to his back and he stank of old sweat and unwashed skin. The red dust that covered everything had coated his skin and glued there with sweat. In the evenings, he would wipe his face and neck, his armpits and groin with a damp cloth, but he never felt clean. Thankfully, everyone else was in the same condition, so no one complained of his stink.
The paved road they traveled on had become indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape, so much dust covered it, but the caravan master knew the direction they traveled and had traveled this road several times before this journey, so he knew the direction the road meandered. Lahn was endlessly fascinated with how wide and large the sky looked in this empty land. The hot wind blew from north and south, depending on the day, and teased the soft, loose dust into tiny cyclones . The cyclones swirled and broke up at intervals.
The spine of the Nthus Mountains clung to the south in the vast emptiness. The wind howled day and night and nothing marred the blue expanse of the sky. Lahn had been told by Telhos that during Safrain the rain returned and the landscape burst forth with color and flora. Animals that hibernated during the hot, dry months, came forth to breed and bear young before the dry months compelled them into their burrows once more. Telhos told Lahn he had a scientist friend, a priest who lived in Kahn, whose life was focused on studying the animals that lived in the vast emptiness of Tjish.un’s interior. Lahn felt a surge of jealousy of this priest. He would have loved to spend his time studying strange, shy animals as well.
Lahn pointed to the mountains. “What type of animals live there?”
Tolhos gazed at the Nthus. “The maltika hunts there the wild nikiri. The nikiri live in caves. It is about the same size as the maltika and is dual-sexed as well. Some hunters go into the Nthus to hunt it, and some merchants have bred the nikiri in captivity to provide meat. Quite tasty, if you get a chance to try it.”
Lahn turned back to the fire pit and wrapped both hands around his mug of hot cider. Nights grew cold this far west, the temperatures dropping at much as thirty degrees once Malthos set. After the bright heat of the day, even mild evenings seemed cold to him. He sipped the cider with its southern spices and fierce sweetness. He had become quite fond of the drink over the weeks they had traveled the Merchant’s Road. He thought of the mercenary who had died of a bad infection in his belly wound and grimaced. The soldier had been young and nothing the empathic healer had done had lessened the fierce infection that ate away at healthy tissue and turned it black. The man had died a painful, slow death. Now Lahn had another goal: to find a disinfectant remedy to halt the progression of the black infection. It was a worthy goal, he thought, although his life was up in the air, wasn’t it? There were days he wondered what he did out here in the middle of nowhere. Kah’len was probably dead. The thought filled him with a deep despair, a blackness he could not shake for days. He clung to his prophetic dreams as if they were all the assurances he needed. Atana had not come to warn him to turn back. She had visited his dreams, as had other voices and visages, fairly regularly. The White Tash-Tash. Uncle Domio thought that meant Kah’len, and Lahn was fairly sure it did mean that, but he could not be sure of anything, could he? The dreams were exhausting, usually shaking him to the core. The Goddess wrung him out, left him drenched in sweat, heart clamoring in his chest. After any such dream, he could not sleep again, and would sit in his tent, writing in a journal he had brought with him.
One such dream haunted him for several days and made his nights miserable, as he fought sleep, afraid of what he would dream of next time. He recalled that he had had a fruitful day, gathering samples of specimens for his collection of flora. His mood had been upbeat, because Lake Cera was only a few days’ distance. When he went to sleep, he had fallen onto his bedroll and had been thinking of Kah’len and the kiss he had been given by the Warlord. He had reached his hand and traced his lower lip with his fingers. He closed his eyes and wandered what sex would be like with Kah’len. Lahn had never had sex and did not know what it entailed, but he had a good imagination. He lay on his bedroll an imagined what would happen if Kah’len kissed him again. He imagined he would entwine his arms around Kah’len’s neck and press his body to the Warlord. As he imagined this, his kaoun stirred and grew hard in his trousers. The kiss deepened and Kah’len hugged him against his powerful, tall body. Lahn gasped as his kaoun grew so hard, it ached. He found himself reaching into his trousers and wrapping his calloused hand around the firm column of flesh. Already the tip of the kauon wept its juices and lent him enough slickness that he could pump the organ. Up and down his hand traveled, while his other hand came to his mouth and he bit into it to keep from crying out, it felt so good. Part of his mind cried out that this was a betrayal of his celibacy, but it was too late to stop.
As he fisted himself, he allowed his mind to range free. In his mind’s eyes, Kah’len was naked, his strong body beautiful beyond measure. Pale and powerful, as if the Goddess had sculpted him Herself. His kauon would be large and powerful, too, a rosy pink column that grew darker as he attained arousal. Kah’len pushed Lahn back onto the bed and covered him with his warm body. Their kisses grew hot and slick as their tongues tangled. Lahn sucked the Warlord’s tongue gently, moaning at the musky taste of the man. Kah’len drew away and Lahn gave a growl of disapproval.
“Where are you going?” he asked, irritated.
Kah’len smirked. “I want to taste you.”
The Warlord then kissed his way down Lahn’s naked body to his kaoun, taking the organ in his mouth at once. The heat and wetness that engulfed him made Lahn cry out. He writhed on the bed while Kah’len supped on his juices and licked and slurped at him. Lahn’s completion built up in him and he did not think he would last much longer. Kah’len placed a finger on Lahn’s entrance and tapped. That is all it took and Lahn was tumbling over the edge spilling his hot juices into his hand. Afterward, Lahn lay there, gazing up at the tent ceiling, guilt eating at him while at the same time his body echoed with satisfaction and pleasure. He fell asleep like that, his hand still cupping his kaoun, his body thrumming from his release. Then he dreamed.
He woke in a field of red prickly flowers. The sky was a dome over his head, curving at the horizons. There was no temperature to the air. It felt wrong somehow. The flowers bobbed in the still air as if nodding to him. He gazed around the dome, looking for some road or some landmark and found none.
He looked around, seeking the sexless voice. The voice was wrong as well, something that could not be.
“I am here,” Lahn said to the sky. “Where are you?”
I am all and nothing. Stillness and rage. Love and emptiness. Prei–Serren: I am here from Her. At the end of the road, there is bliss. Between the hollow and the bliss lies deception, pain and loss. You must walk through the fire to feel the rain in your face. You must burn before there is cool attainment.
“I don’t understand.”
Find the strength to supersede challenge. Nothing given to you is beyond your means to overcome. You have been chosen for your strength, Prei-Serren. For your perseverance. You were chosen before you were born, when a seed became a flower became a tree. She touched the face of your soul and set you free. Heed my words, child of light, and behold. You will succeed.
Lahn found that he had been walking in that vast field, gazing up at the sunless sky. He walked right into a hole and fell. His screams echoed against the walls of earth around him. As he fell, he reached out for the thick roots that poked out of the earthen walls. Every time he got close to a root, he would be pushed back and away by some force. When he reached again for the wall, a mouth with teeth appeared and swallowed his hand, biting it off at the wrist. The pain burned up his arm and made him scream in terror. Blood gushed from his wrist and the mouth chewed his hand avidly, gurgling from hunger.
You will be mine again, a new voice assured him. The voice made Lahn’s stomach curl in on itself. The darkness will swallow you and you will be eaten whole by my sacred mouth. Your blood will gush like a fountain and my followers will dance on your bones.
All at once, Lahn hit the ground with such force, he awakened with a scream clogging his throat. He was shaking and cradling his right hand against his chest. He could still feel the echoes of the pain in his bones. Rivulets of sweat threaded down his temples and neck and fell into his eyes. He wiped his face with a cold, shaking hand. His heart was racing in his chest and his breaths were coming out as pants. Struggling to control his panic, he came up on his knees and closed his eyes to pray. He babbled, sobbing and shaking, until warmth fell upon him like heated oil. All at once, peace stole into his body and he wept in relief and gratitude. Outside his tent, he could hear the caravan stirring awake. He wiped his face and neck with his tunic before pulling it over his neck. Once dressed, he unlaced the tent flap and crawled out into the early morning.
Now, as he rode next to his uncle, he recalled the dream and grew cold despite the heat of the day. Who had owned the second voice? Had it been Poa? He shivered and swallowed thickly.
He gazed up ahead, past the wagons and mercenaries, and saw the glittering dark waters of Lake Cera. They would reach it by end of day and camp by its shores. A little town nestled against her shores and, once there, Lahn and Domio would find a room in an inn and bathe properly before setting off on the third leg of their journey.
Lahn turned to Domio. “I had another dream, Uncle.”
Domio raised an eyebrow. “You have a lot of prophetic dreams. Are you writing them down?”
“Yes, sir. This one disturbed me deeply.” He described the dream to Domio.
“Do you think it was Poa, Uncle?”
His uncle frowned. “I don’t know, child. It seems so, on the surface, but, as you are so fond of warning, prophetic dreams are never straightforward. I will have to find a book of prophecies once we get to Da’hrisjah and read up on it. They have a university there, too, which is famous in this continent.”
“If we have time,” Lahn groused. “I hope Kah’len is well, Uncle.”
“He is sturdy and strong,” Domio replied. “I don’t think his father would kill him. I think he is well enough.”
“I hope so.”
That evening the caravan reached the little town on the shores of Lake Cera. The town looked like it was beginning to sprawl in all directions. The buildings were baked red brick and melded into their surroundings. No building rose higher than two stories and, towards the south, the beginnings of a ziggurat had begun to be built. Once the ziggurat was complete, the town would be christened with a name. Lahn wondered what name it would own, since all the gods’ names had already been given to other, larger cities.
Lake Cera was huge, emptying out into the horizon seemingly without end. Telhos told Lahn the lake was 400 sepeks long by 200 sepeks wide. To Lahn, it was like an ocean, but calm and still, while an ocean was mostly always restless.
Lahn and Domio bid goodbye to Telhos.
The merchant hugged them each and handed them a folded piece of paper.
“I live in Ike’rhue,” Telhos told them. “Please send correspondences to me there, just to let me know if you succeed in your endeavors and to let me know how you are.”
Domio smiled at him and took his paper, slipping it into the inner lining of his cassock. “Thank you, Telhos. You have been good company. If ever you come to Torahn, look us up.”
Telhos bowed. “An honor, Father. Lahn.”
They stood side by side and watched while the caravan lumbered away. The merchants would have to find berths on river boats that would take them as close to Ike’rhue as the Kahi River came.
While Domio went in search of a riverboat that was headed to the capital, Lahn took their lirtah and went in search of an inn for the night. He desperately wanted a bath and a change of clothes. He found an inn near the southern edge of the sprawling town, within the shadow of the skeleton of the ziggurat.
“How long will you need a room for, my lord?” the innkeeper asked.
He looked at the buxom woman and considered her question. “I’m not sure. We are traveling to the capital.”
She nodded as she looked in her ledgers. “The soonest a riverboat is headed that far north is four days’ time. Will you need a room for that length of time, sir?”
“Yes, thank you. Have you a bathing chamber?”
“We have a bathing room, yes. Just for you?”
He shook his head. “My uncle is with me.”
“Two tubs then. And a room with two beds. Five soltos.”
He gaped. “I can’t agree to that price without my uncle’s consent. I’ll return.”
He turned to leave.
“Wait!” she called out.
He stopped and turned.
“Two soltos and I will stable your mounts for no cost.”
He considered. It was still exorbitant, but he thought it would leave them enough for the riverboat fare and another room at the capital. He nodded and paid her. She wrote their names in her ledger and gave him a receipt then they walked out to where he had tied their lirtah. Once he took both saddlebags off the beasts, she led the lirtah away, around the building to the stables behind the inn.
“You are in room 5 on the second floor,” she called. “Come by for your key and your towel and cake of soap. I’ll be right back.”
He carried the saddlebags to the designated room and walked in. The room was stale, so he set the saddlebags on one of the narrow beds and opened the lower part of the window, which was a sash that opened about four inches, letting just a bit of air into the room. He grimaced and left the room, heading back to the main floor.
“Are there any windows that open wider?” he asked the innkeeper.
She shook her head and handed him a folded towel, a washcloth and a cake of soap, the key to the room on top. “Because of the monsoons, the windows don’t open much wider than the window in your room. I’m sorry, sir, but that is how things are.”
’“That’s fine,” he said. “Where is your bathing chamber.”
She pointed to the right-hand hall. “Last room on the left. Dinner will be served soon. Will you eat in your room or down here?”
“Down here, please.”
She curtsied while he refrained from rolling his eyes and went in search of the bathing chamber.