The last entry of an explorer’s journal
The search grows more fraught and futile by the day. Each night, as the last light leaves our camp and we prepare for an uneasy sleep, I hear the same weariness in our voices even as we speak of the possibility of finally finding the spring tomorrow.
We knew this quest would be arduous at best, perilous at worst. Being from the Oasis Capital, we were all taught to fear the unpredictable desert and its inhabitants.
The desert is a living beast, merciless and wild, and in it magic ran rampant, led by a mind of its own. Explorers before us had spoken of winds that whispered to them in the quiet hours before dawn and local tribes passed down tales of unspeakable creatures concealed by night – creatures that burned with unearthly heat, creatures old as the desert itself and twice as merciless.
We knew, too, that to find a magical spring that lay in the heart of the desert was near impossible. My father’s deranged obsession over a fabled spring that no one could chart a road to has already led countless soldiers to their deaths.
The desert is a land no mortal can rightfully claim; all who tried never lived to tell the tale. Men are foolish to think they might possibly unearth its secrets and mine its treasures.
Should I then abort my dogged hunt as well or risk becoming like my father?
No. To let my father find the spring and use it for his own gain would mean more deaths and no end to this widespread famine and drought. I have to stop him.
A shadow looms outside my tent. Yan calls from behind the flap, “Wei.”
“What is it?”
“We found an intruder.” When he enters, he and Luo are holding a willowy girl captive between them. “She was hiding in the supplies cart, stealing our clothes.”
She looks no older than me – eighteen at most – and looks as though she has definitely seen better days. Despite the men’s garb that hangs loosely on her, her windswept hair and grimy face, a steely defiance sits in her eyes even as she steps in with her arms pinned behind her back. Her eye colour shifts from deep black onyx to the lethal silver of a sword when she meets my gaze, and I take an involuntary step back.
There are countless tales about desert beings, some of them as far-fetched as the serpent that lives beneath the shifting sands, and some that even the most sceptical travellers secretly pay heed to. The story about the Damohai, Children of the Desert, is one that travels far and wide, across the desert, the sweeping plains of Zzang in the north, the hidden valleys of Baldur in the west, and even the bustling streets of Oasis City, where it is sometimes whispered as a bedtime story.
My own knowledge of the Elementals was gleaned from merchants crossing the desert hoping to seek their fortunes. They taught me the easiest way to spot one: It’s all in the eyes. Their shifting eyes reveal the secret that they may not even know.
“I’ll take it from here,” I tell Luo and Yan.
When we are left alone, I take a measured step back towards the girl. She definitely does not belong to the Capital. Her body is tensed, as though she is prepared to fight or flee at the slightest sign of danger.
“How did you slip into our camp?”
She blinks in surprise at my question, breaking the caginess in her expression. “The eastern corner is unguarded. It’s not hard.”
It’s not hard when you’re a desert girl trained for survival. We both know that’s what she means to say, but I let it pass. There are questions I’d like to ask her – who is she hiding from?
But desert folk aren’t the most trusting bunch, and it would take more than offering a few supplies to get her to talk.
Then her gaze drifts to the scrolls strewn around my bed and the map laid out on the table, held down by my crossbow. She lunges forward and seizes the map.
“You mean to find the spring too?” I make no reply. Her demeanour darkens. “You’re not the only one. Men have become turncoats and killers over it.” A beat skips between us. “Are you?”
“If I were, I wouldn’t admit that so freely.”
She waits for a proper answer. Her eyes are disconcerting, but I barely allow a moment’s hesitation.
“We’re just explorers,” I say. “We have no use for the spring.”
That is the first lie I ever tell her.
Took me a few tries to get this one right – I was still tinkering with it up until the eleventh hour, which explains the late posting. This piece is basically a sneak preview of the upcoming fantasy YA novel I’ll be working on that goes by the same title. The setting is inspired by ancient Mongolia and China.
I can’t wait to dive in proper, and hope you enjoyed this in the meantime!