It is difficult to sleep without a tent, and yet, I find myself without one. I suppose one does not truly need one in this place. The ground is soft enough, but the endless day interferes with sleep. I am tired, so tired, but I must keep walking until I find something to make a tent out of, or the end of the Long Sands. Some water would be a welcome sight, but it’s been a long time since I saw anything except for what I continue to carry on me. I am beginning to believe that there is no end to the desert; that I will die here before I complete my mission. Even with my equipment, I won’t last long when the water runs out.
The horizon is a constant thing. If one could see the horizon, one could always see where one was, at least so far as one direction went. The light sat where it always sat, shining from the desert across the edge of the world. The orb lit the sky higher than it had before- almost as if it were taunting me. I was chasing the light, but it was running away, up above into the sky. Still, I trudge on. There is nothing else to do.
Back in the village, my people are of the opinion that when a man or woman grows too old to serve the people, or become otherwise incapacitated, that they must make a choice. They must choose where they are to die. The choice is usually made carefully. A person may choose to die in the Long Sands, where their spirit is received by Liren. Alternatively, they may cross into the Long Snow, where their spirit becomes the possession of Vaden. A person who does not make this choice is shunned, hated even, for their resistance against what is, after all, a natural thing. They will be received by neither Great Spirit, until another chooses to carry their spirit for them.
Liren and Vaden are known by many names, in many villages. All agree however, on certain things. Liren is the Spirit of fire, blood, light, action, violence, and love. Vaden is the spirit of ice, mystery, darkness, preservation, knowledge, and discipline. Liren’s love for Vaden, and her refusal of his advances, is the oldest legend told by my people; even today, Liren races towards Vaden, hoping to win her heart with his laughter and energy. Yet, Vaden still runs from him, hiding in the snows she brings to hide herself.
These old legends speak of the Great Spirits that are said to inhabit our world- there are others as well, but Liren and Vaden form the greatest of the spirits. The other spirits inhabit the Middling, where my people survive. Here the land is fertile, neither too cold nor too hot, and the hosterlillies grow. The plants are small, but they grow quickly and robustly. They are enough to feed the people as we travel with the changing Middling Line. So long as Liren continues his chase after Vaden, the Middling Line, often known as simply the Line, continues to move towards Vaden, and my people follow. We cannot live as physical beings in the Long Sands, or the Long Snow, for very long.
There is not much to tell of my journey. It remains much the same as it has before. A hardier breed of hosterlily blooms at the edge of the Long Sands, but I have not seen one since I last saw water. The suit I wear should keep nutrients cycling through me without much loss, but the small losses will begin to add up. My only hope is finding something my people can use, whether the palace of Liren, or simply a place to live. The Line, though it has long been our home, is no longer livable.
As Liren continues to chase Vaden, the ground under the Line has given way to water. Depending on how far towards Vaden’s realm one passes, the water may very well be ice, but hosterlillies cannot grow on ice. Some members of my village cut down into the ice to confirm that water sat below it, and no earth for a plant to take root. To make matters worse, the water seems to have no end in sight. While the great spirits may survive in such conditions, we cannot. So a villager and I set off in opposite directions- one towards the sun and the Long Sands, and one away from it, to the Long Snows. We seek a home, at the very least.
I have lost count of time, out on the sands. The moons have always been a fair measure of time on the Line, but I cannot always see them in the sky as bright as it is. I will find my way to Liren, even if it kills me.
I can glimpse the moon on the horizon. It is the beginning of another day. My muscles seem to have every intention of failing on me. I have finally seen it- Liren’s palace. It seems to be hung in the sky, so I know not how I will reach it, but my resolve is set. My people are depending on me.
I stumble across the terrain, distracted by momentary ripples in the dunes, shifts caused by the wind. But then, back again, to the sight. Spires, all hung together like a hosterlilly bush,like a woman’s hair by firelight. They shine as a metal does, immobile. Yet I could have sworn they were moving, by the ripple which has moved to the air. It is a shroud of heat, preparing to lay me to rest. Not yet.
In an hour, I am closer. The palace is more clear now, as a crystalline fortress. It was not held in the sky by magic, but rather by pillars of glass, or perhaps salt, raising it well above the surface. In the center of the pillars appears a stairway. The pillars themselves are each tilted, and disappear into the sand below. Were the pillars hollow, a single one could contain my entire village,I make my way to the steps.
Liren’s palace. I am at the end of my strength- I know I don’t have enough energy for the journey back. Yet it is either surrender, or climb, and I cannot imagine climbing these stairs. Each step is as tall as a man, and open to the force of wind and heat above. I raise my arms to the first step, and somehow pull myself to the next. Tendons strain, bones buckle. And I am one step closer. I climb again. And again. The progress is slow, but I cannot stop. If anything were to happen to me, my village would die. I heave and rise.
And I am at the top. An engraved circle is cut into the hot glass (for now I am sure this is the material of the palace). I crawl to it. And then, I am gone.
I slip into a labyrinth. The light, the heat, the wind, the grit, all gone. It is dim, but not impossible to see, and my eyes grow accustomed to their surroundings. The room I have entered is sparkling slowly, quietly, and I hear the chime of a quiet mechanism.
Before me is a console. I step to it, recognizing its like. I have seen consoles before, on long-dead sand bikes and abandoned settlements. I can only assume that Liren’s palace used to house my ancestors, who traveled both the ice and sands. Unlike the ones I have seen, this one glows with light. It is alive.
I am too dry to speak, but lay my hand across the console. The room lights up, as if the shutters had opened up. Beams illuminate the floor and walls, as the ceiling grows brighter. I have been recognized. I sit against the wall. Liren has granted me an audience, and I am safe. I can now sleep.
I wake up, in the room again. I am incredibly stiff, but pull myself to my feet. I will go slowly.
I walk to the edge of the room, and the wall opens to allow me passage. I step into a walkway.
I whisper feebly, but it seems I am not heard. I take small steps, balancing on my blistered heels.
And what appears to be a throne room appears. No retainers of any kind inhabit this space- perhaps I simply cannot see them. The throne beckons, and I step to it. I examine it- it is simply crystal, like the rest of this castle. I debate sitting down. Is it wrong to assume the honor of lordship here? I cannot decide, but in minutes, my legs have decided for me. I sit.
I sink into the throne, as if it were liquid. No time to cry out, no time to shift. In the sitting position, I slip backwards into the crystal of the fortress.
I smell citrus, and blood. I hear the call of my father, beckoning my brother and I to return to our home to pack for the next migration. I feel the fur of a govoso, my first kill. I taste the sweat of my first love. I see the light. Oh, the light. It overwhelms me. I smell the embers of a fireside. I hear the cacophony of assembled musicians. I feel the sting of a wound, taken from the sharp thorns at the base of a hosterlilly. I taste the salt of the ocean, a moment of great excitement, but also of impending doom for my people. I see the strike of a flint, the shine of the sun, the reflection off of a mirror.
When I wake once more, I am older. A beard runs from my chin to halfway down my chest. What delirium, what madness, overtook me? What fire consumed my years, as surely as I walked the sediment of the world, as surely as I found adventure in the brooks of my younger years? I have slept, and I have woken.
The palace is still quietly chiming, and there are still no people to be seen. I slip through the hallways, pass through rooms. Each room contains a different dream. In one room is a soldier guarding a chest filled with ancient gems. In another room is a row of horses, heads bowed. In another room I find a perfectly preserved house of cards reaching to the ceiling. I do not come across the console room, nor will I, ever again. The palace has many rooms, but one can never come across the same room twice.
I pass through the invisible city. There is a room with a full feast prepared, but the guests at the table are all skeletons. I do not take any food. There is room painted to seem like a dark place, yet the light destroys that illusion. A library makes up one of the rooms, with books of all kinds lining the shelves. The shelves themselves lead from one side of the room but do not seem to terminate. I am certain that if I followed them, I could find any book ever written. The next room is full of writhing snakes.
When I have been walking through the rooms of Liren’s palace for some time, I stop to rest. I am tired, and hungry here, yet never seem to need to sleep or eat. I would say I was dreaming, but for the constant reminder of the palace’s constancy- all of the walls, floors, and ceiling are the same glassy crystal I have seen before. This is the palace I saw from the desert sands, I am sure of it.
Next to the snake room, there is a room where music is always in the air. I passed on to the next room, where three bald people sat in a circle. They would, each in turn, make a sound, then wait for the other two to follow. I tried to communicate with them, but they did not seem to notice I was even there. The next room contained a pyramid, at the head of which was a three-headed cat. Below was a crowd of cats, gazing up at their mutant leader. I left here with a sense of awe in my heart, which I do not know was artificial or simply inspired. The next room appeared to be covered in spiderwebs, but on closer inspection, each web was made of a thin strand of paper.
I began to see a rhyme, a reason, to the rooms and their sequence. I could, on leaving one room, predict the kind of room that would follow, and sometimes even guess specifics as to its contents.
One room was a set of platforms, some raised above others. The surfaces were mirrored, polished, depending on their height. It was as if I were crossing hills, fields of grass and leaves and trees, yet the whole room was simply flat squares of crystal. A room was full of a smoke, which made me cough. I somehow passed from this one, only to find myself moving slowly, deliberately in the next room. The room was simply slower- there is no other way to describe it.
Another room contained countless boxes, inside of which lived a tiny people. I was able to communicate with them, and they told me that I had been the first visitor from outside in some time. They were too afraid to venture beyond the confines of their room- I wondered at whether this were a feature of the labyrinth itself, or merely a facet of the people themselves. There was a room where gears and clockwork turned with ruthless efficiency to support some grand machine. I could not understand its purpose, but the valves and gauges led me to believe it was some sort of engine. Perhaps it was providing power to the labyrinth, but I doubted it (in fact, it was much more likely that it was the other way around).
I never stopped at any room forever. Though I found many rooms pleasant, and some special few blissful, I could not help but wander on to the next one. My purpose had not been forgotten, but it was no longer what drove me. The rooms, the potential of a world unimagined of, were simply too fascinating for me to stand still for long. I was filled with curiosity.
I finally found a room, in the center of which was a globe. One side was yellow, the other side blue. On one wall was a glowing light, far brighter than I had seen in most other rooms. This was my world. I pushed on the globe, and it began to spin. The color of the globe began to mix as it span, and the aggregate seemed a green. My purpose had been fulfilled, if indeed this room had any bearing on the world I had come from.
Yet I continued to walk. I ambled ponderously into a room full of flowers I had never seen, with cretins of some kind hiding in the buds. They would scamper from one to another when disturbed, but otherwise seemed content to poke at me with long claws. In one room I climbed a stairway that ended where it had begun. Yet, on leaving the room, I came across a room where numbers and symbols covered the walls. It was some kind of obtuse equation, I could not decipher nor place any meaning on, other than that it seemed impressive. I walked on, finding a room where a giant slept. A room with inflated plastic tunnels and slides. A room with germane trifles and amusements, but from which no reward was forthcoming.
And then I came to a room with no doors. It was in this room I stopped, and it is in this room I have been ever since.