The Rains of Ral’Zatar
A short story by
Copyright 2016 by George Mikhailov
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“I miss the music,” he thought. “The women used to sing such wonderful songs. Full of power and beauty.” Only now was Taro beginning to regret his long journey, as the nightly winds chilled his weary bones. He used to be a well-connected merchant in his tribe, but now, surrounded by darkness and endless dunes of sand, he felt lost and afraid. He had crossed all known rivers, springs and oases, and now he was truly on his own. His water reserves that he hauled from the last known and mapped oasis had ended yesterday night.
“No person should ever be tested like this,” he thought. His soul began to sink at the thought of having left it all behind, only to die on the blistering hot sands and forever be remembered as a madman. “Am I doomed to be the warning for all others who dare to escape the endless desert?” The end of his journey was a place that no desert tribe had marked on their maps, and the myths and tales that spoke of it told of a land beyond the sea of sand, and all the desert peoples knew it was unending to the east.
He preferred to sleep during the day, finding a rare spot of shade under a lonely tree or some shrubbery, and traveled during the cold night. A loose-fitting robe made of black wool drooped over his thin, short body. It was a nomadic trader from whom he obtained the robe that sparked his faith in the Land of Eternal Rain.
After a full night of trekking through the shifting sands, Taro was relieved to finally see the sand dunes end, but only to be replaced by dry, arid plains. The sun was starting to rise, and like a reflection of the dunes he had crossed, it blanketed part of the dark night’s sky with a pale yellow, sandy light. Dead grass littered the landscape in patches, but there were enough small trees to give the illusion of the possibility of survival.
“If I cannot find water by midday, I fear that I will not make it to the next nightfall,” he thought. He left the dunes behind, but Taro still felt the taste of sand linger his dry mouth, accompanied by the gritty crunch between his teeth as he searched the arid land for a source of water. He was a man that the gods themselves would find unsuitable for such a journey. The desert tribes have had their bodies adapt over the years to low water consumption, but even for Taro the pains of thirst were becoming difficult to bear, both physically and mentally.
East was his new religion. So long as even a drop of faith existed in his frail, dried out body, he would continue his journey east, following his belief in the Land of Eternal Rain, the land known as Ral’Zatar.
“Just over the horizon, there the barren desert shall finally end, and a sea of wondrous green shall begin. If not this horizon, then the next one, I am sure of it. This ocean of sand cannot stop me from reaching you, Ral’Zatar. And once I reach you, I shall drink the water falling from the skies. I shall drink, and drink, until my stomach is swollen, and finally find peace in the rain.”
No one else wanted to join him in his journey. The overpopulated tribal oasis he left behind was slowly dying, and Taro knew it. After meeting with the nomadic trader, the thought of spending his entire life in the desert, moving from oasis to oasis and merely trying to survive, never to see the glory of a field of grass or trees that tower to the heavens, was a thought he could not bear any longer. And so he left all of his possessions behind, and began his trek east.
He recognized a small patch of trees that looked like a tangled knot of vines being consumed by the dry, cracked land, halfway to the horizon. He knew them as hellroot trees which used to grow near the tribal oasis, and the roots would usually be swollen with sweet tasting water. He brought with him only a small shovel, and an even smaller crescent moon shaped blade. The sun was beginning to burn the land, and he was left with only two dire choices:
“Dig and cut open the hellroot, and risk overheating in the sun, or sleep somewhere in the shade, and perhaps wake up too weak to finish my journey. Either way,” he thought, “eagerly does death stalk me today. If it is so, I will face it while I am still able to stand. I will not be robbed of my life while I sleep.” He approached the hellroot trees, and started to cut through the sand with his small shovel, inching deeper to get at the roots.
Abandoning any semblance of patience, Taro switched to his thin blade, held a long piece of hellroot, and sliced it open along its length and quickly searched for any moisture with his dry tongue. Like dew on a single blade of grass, there was barely anything to wet his lips. His spirits shattered, he left the patch of hellroot trees and searched for shade under the hot sun.
Along the way, he set his usual traps for scorpions under their hole-like homes, and soon found a sliver of shade under a dead desert tree. He must have eaten almost every kind of insect the Atra desert had to offer throughout his journey, and yet it was never enough to stave off hunger. Famished and dehydrated, he nodded off to a difficult sleep. In the clear blue skies above, vultures circled and eyed the frail creature under the shade. It was only an hour past noon in the arid plains.
Taro woke in the evening. He could barely keep his eyes open as a mind-crushing headache had overtaken him, but still managed to pick up his weakened body and search his scorpion traps. Disappointed, he saw only two small scorpions in the clay cups he used for trapping. He cut off the tiny poison sacs on their tails, as well as their pincers, and ate the small desert predators. Unsatisfied with his catch, he continued his journey east, hoping for salvation in the fabled land of Ral’Zatar.
Taro felt his stomach under the black wool robe, and for the first time realized how much weight he had lost over the course of his journey. A small unfamiliar lump near his chest was also felt, and while he uncovered a part of his dress to see, he noticed it was a small cloth bag sewn to his robe, and its contents had a hard metallic feel. He ripped the bag from the wool, and onto the dry earth fell two gold coins with the immaculate emblem of the great empire in the far north-west. He looked up to the star spangled heavens and cursed.
“What use do I have now for these? If only I could trade these for a cup of water, nay! For only half a cup, I would be grateful. Why do the gods curse this weary traveler so?”
After spending the night walking through the barren plains, embraced by the cold still air blowing west, Taro was thoroughly exhausted. The sun was supposed to rise, but all he saw was darkness around him. Perhaps now even his eyes had forsaken him and were playing cruel, heartless tricks with him, he thought. After two full days and nights without water, Taro struggled to climb a small hill, slowly dragging his overworked feet up the slope. Once he reached the top, a terrible feeling, as if being pulled into the desert ground, had befallen him. He swayed, he let out a deep breath, and collapsed onto the ground. His body rolled down the hard hill until it met the depression below, where his body lied motionless.
He awoke to a deep, rumbling and powerful sound, and the feeling of drowning. All around him the land was being battered by a fierce rainstorm, and the depression he was in had swelled up with water. The westerly winds had brought the storms of the east to the edge of the arid plains, soaking the terrain with warm rain. Another crash of thunder echoed above.
Taro tried to breathe but only swallowed a mouthful of water, and struggled to get out of the brimming, sunken area. With his wool soaked, as well as the metal tools and clay cups weighing him down, he could not bring his exhausted and weakened body up to the surface.
He found himself hopelessly anchored to the bottom of the pit, gasping for life, choking on the rainwater. Soon all sounds started to fade to a dull rattle, until silence consumed the world. The rains of Ral’Zatar continued to wash over the arid plains, and with the change of the winds they retreated east, leaving Taro and his journey behind.