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Farah arrives outside the old wagon, and hesitates a moment before knocking. It is the same as always. He considers its split wood planks, which threaten to collapse upon themselves at any moment. He stares a moment too long at the flickering oil lamp behind the ragged curtain of its only window before shutting his eyes tightly before the miserable sight.

If not for the wishes of the man within, he would have burned this wretched thing long ago.

As a hundred times before, his head begins to swim, and he reaches out to steady himself. His fingers graze the softened planks, and he realizes again how old the wagon truly is. Opening his eyes and leveling them upon the vehicle, he feels age and sorrow creeping upon him from some dark, foreign place. From that hollow void where we store memories, sometimes never to find them again. From the refuge of the wisest Ra'Shari alive...

The gypsies call him the Living Memory - the oldest gypsy in the long, long line of old gypsies roaming this cursed land. He has been with the caravan since well before anyone can remember, collecting stories and bits of knowledge, and storing them away for safekeeping. Sometimes, when least expected or at the least opportune moments, he is wont to blurt out random fables or cryptic phrases, yet all Ra'Shari know to listen. They know that they might never have another chance to hear that particular bit of the past again.

For memory is fickle, and so is its sole proprietor.

All gypsies cherish history. All try to honor the past through acute memory and constant conversation. But the Living Memory has become something more. He can account for events that happened when he was nowhere near, and recite genealogies from many hundreds of years ago, when he could not possibly have been alive.

And everything he says is true.

"Come in, my boy," a creaking voice compels from inside.

Startled, Farah glances at the window and sees a wavering shadow cast upon the curtain. He knows how the elder moves, and how he speaks, yet there is a new element today. There is something wrong. He steps up into the single room, immediately unsettled by the strong aroma within. It is like a strong, spicy civet, and would easily be overpowering if not for Farah's familiarity. Instinctively, he turns and sits at the single remaining chair alongside the open window.

The ancient figure across from him has pushed the curtain aside with one long, spindly finger, and is impassively observing the rolling dunes outside. The perpetual grimace he wears reveals nothing of his concern, Farah thinks.

Had I not noticed it in his voice and motion, I would never have realized...

"Grandfather," he begins, "tell me what troubles you."

When he turns to Farah, his glassy, torpid eyes confirm the gypsy's fears. He is not well. It is as if he were not even present in the room, not in mind or spirit. But a moment later, he speaks, and though the words are troubling, Farah knows better than to interrupt...

"When I was young and strong, I saw them for the first time. They came across the desert like a horde of gleaming shadows, the sun glinting from their armor like a beacon. The sun was displeased at their arrival. They were not wanted here. They would upset the balance so carefully set a thousand years ago.

"And so I was asked to go to them, to defer them back across the steep mountains that had been erected to keep them away. I was afraid, of course. It would be no small task, making demands upon demons, and all the more these that would defy a god. Yet I was bound by the future. To protect the Prophecy, and ensure it's integrity as written, they would have to be turned back.

"I first approached them during the peak of Silah's arc high overhead, when I knew they would be slumbering. These beings, like most dark spirits, chose to hide under cover during the day, fearing the light. And so I entered their lair, a shallow cave below the sand, with the names of a hundred brave ancestors upon my lips.

"The first of them that I encountered was female, and though she had taken the form of a lovely human, I knew this to be a ruse. She seemed quite surprised by my arrival, and began questioning me in her native tongue. Not being of the underworld, however, I was naturally unable to understand her, and so she rose and took a step toward me.

"My fear must have shown through then, as I took a number of steps backward. She stopped and looked at me askance, apparently confused by my actions. From this, I reasoned that she was still unsure of my intentions, and so I quelled my dread and drew up my form, ready to continue with the challenge at hand.

"More of them had noticed the exchange, and were rousing from their unnatural sleep. I was nearly surrounded by them, and did not expect them all to have taken the human shapes I now observed. Their bodies were strong... powerful... though utterly alien. They were cold and pale, like ghostly apparitions, and dressed in heavy clothing, many having shed their sweltering suits of chain mail. Their possessions were foreign as well, a confusing collection of instruments whose functions I could scarcely guess at.

"One among them was different, however. He was a Senpet, I think, though his skin had taken on a strange tint and he wore the same odd stylings as the others, though of substantially lighter material. Seeing me, he said something to the others in their own language before speaking directly to me, asking me how I had come to their hidden camp.

"I told him that I had been sent, and that they had to turn back or risk the wrath of Silah. He was sullen, and somewhat frantic as we talked, and explained to me that the demons from across the mountains - whom he called 'Yodotai' - would not be convinced. 'They do not believe in our gods, little one,' he said, 'and they would sooner die than return to their masters in failure.'

"I asked him of their reason for being here, even though I was sure that Silah would not have desired me to know. 'They are looking for something,' he replied. 'Something they lost long ago.' Before I could say anything more, however, his eyes grew even wilder and his voice more urgent. 'But we are all cursed, child. Ever since we arrived in the sands, we have been plagued by an evil spirit intent on killing us all!'

"His words sounded like a plea, though I had no idea what he thought I could do. A moment later, I had my answer. 'Your people have experience with matters of ill fortune, yes? They know how to lift curses?' Blinking in disbelief at the deranged Senpet, I stammered out a brief affirmation, yet regretted it immediately.

"'Help us, please!' he cried. 'The spirit will not release us, and we have been searching the dunes for weeks looking for you. So many have died...' I told him that I did not understand, while inside I wondered at his words. The demons had been seeking the Ra'Shari, and had brought another evil with them. 'It's leading us in circles until the Yodotai drop following their own tracks!

It brings famine and disease! We are slaves to it's hateful, unknown purpose!

It must be sent away, and only you can do that!'

"As my vision moved from one of the invaders to the next, I dared to ask myself the obvious question:

"What manner of monster could frighten a demon?"

Within the ancient wagon, the Living Memory releases a long, haggard breath, deflating with the effort. Farah, full of questions himself, withholds them as long as possible before tenderly reaching for the aged man's hand.

"Grandfather... Are you well?"

"The child agreed that the spirit would have to be driven away, and showed them the path toward salvation." His mumblings seem closer now. Farah's eyes flex involuntarily as he fumbles through the story again, trying to put it all together. "Why... why are you telling me this...?"

A low rumbling gathers beneath the wagon, causing the oil lamp to sway precariously above the Living Memory. As Farah rises and takes hold of it, the shaking increases, until everything is vibrating or swinging alarmingly. The old gypsy does not seem disturbed, though, as he looks up to face his guest. His eyes are alert now, returned to their common level of enthusiasm.

"Because," he says in a level tone, "you will soon have to contend with my decision."

The door of the wagon opens behind Farah, and someone enters. Turning as quickly as he can without tipping the lamp, he faces the intruder, and is stunned to see that it is his own daughter, Shagala. She is cold from the night air - too cold, in fact - and as he puts down the lamp and kneels to embrace her, he notices that she is trembling.

"What's wrong, my love?" Farah asks, but she does not answer.

Instead, she turns and exits the wagon. When he follows, he sees all his people out about the great fire between their wagons, and beyond them a shining line of armored men and women, staring blankly into the gypsy camp with the hollow eyes of the walking dead.

"Great Goddess," Farah whispers, "you've brought them here?"

"I have," comes the unexpected response from behind him.

Hardly capable of containing his astonished ire, Farah looks upon the Living Memory and breathes, "You sent my daughter out there..."

"I did," he returns.

"Why?" is all that remains to ask.

The old Ra'Shari smiles at Farah, and recalls a time when he would have asked the same - before the cruelty of wisdom.

"Because, my son, nothing last forever..."



Kaze no Shiro Return


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