She knelt down to grab the object.
She was cautious, to be sure. After all, her curiosity seldom led to any real good. If she was this wary some days ago, she would definitely have not taken this journey, maybe. Not that she didn’t know her limitations; still, no danger really discouraged her.
Well, danger… Jade thought danger was a term used by people to define whatever they were too afraid to face. And she was, after all, Jade!
The object seemed to be some scrap of heavily used metal which must’ve one day formed part of some kind of hunting weapon. Jade narrowed her eyes as she caressed it lightly it in her hands. Her mind trailed off to that imaginative place she sought whenever she came across such relics, and wondered what this piece had once witnessed, or whatever it had to endure before finding its place in her hands.
She was already lost in her thoughts when a sudden sound brought her back to her senses. Letting her attention off the piece of junk in her hand, she swiftly turned to look behind her. So now I’m hearing voices, great!
Unmoving, she scanned her surroundings. Well they do say this desert is full of memories and ghosts… A light sigh escaped her lungs and she laughed at herself for thinking, even for a single moment, about ghosts. Her sense of humour faded the moment she turned to grab her latest article of interest.
It was gone.
She searched vigorously for the object, digging the sands of the Salaknah despite its scorching temperature. ‘Damn you!’ she blurted, standing up.
‘I suppose that’s directed towards me?’
Jade jumped and made for the dagger at her side, unsheathing it and rapidly turning to face her aggressor. ‘Show yourself, old man,’ she said nervously, her armed hand trembling slightly despite all her efforts to conceal it.
‘Old? Well, maybe. But definitely not a man. Though I was…. once.’
‘I thought we were past the point of speaking in riddles,’ replied Jade, agitation evident in her voice.
‘We?’ came the voice again.
Jade narrowed her eyes, taking in all her environment and waving her dagger from side to side. She was a skilled ranger, but whoever was teasing her in the middle of this accursed desert was good – and the heat wasn’t helping.
‘I don’t think we have a past,’ continued the voice. ‘But of course, there is much I don’t remember about my… life.’
Jade’s fought the urge to wipe the sweat off her brow. ‘Enough with your tricks, old man. Show yourself. I might let you go.’
‘Bah! Let me go where, young woman.’
‘I am really starting to think you’re not actually talking to me now!’ came the voice’s mocking tone. ‘Are you sure the desert hasn’t turned you nuts? They said it used to turn some people crazy back in my days. At least that I still remember.’
Jade tried hard to keep her calm. Whatever trick the old man was playing, she was sure this was another some kind of test: she would only have to pretend she was listening, and the old man would soon be jabbering about the next life lesson to be learnt. She lowered her dagger slowly and straightened her back. ‘Go on,’ she said boringly, trying to find a spot where to lay her eyes.
‘Oh,’ replied the voice. ‘I thank you!’
Jade raised an eyebrow.
‘I do appreciate being heard. This place’s too lonely and bleak, you know. I always thought it was going to be full of colours and stars. But I was wrong… on so many things.’
‘How so?’ asked Jade, not yet wholly unaware of how interested in her new subject she was really getting.
‘You mentioned tricks, earlier. I used to play a lot of tricks, back in my time, I think,’ answered the voice, gaining a more sombre-like tone. ‘Though of course I didn’t consider them to be just tricks back then. But I was wrong, in a way.’
‘I see,’ said Jade, still holding her dagger firm in her fist.
‘Do you? I mean, in some few things I was right. Aspects, rather. But nothing really matters anymore. Ah there it is, I said it. I never believed I would ever come to say such a thing…. Nothing really matters anymore. I said it again!’ the voice gained on some form of excitement.
‘What do you mean?’ Jade was sure her voice and facial expression revealed her growing curiosity more than she intended. People often told her that her body language betrayed her.
‘I don’t know really,’ replied the voice, half-heartedly. ‘I already got lost in whatever I was telling you. It gets too simple, over here. And back then I thought life was complicated… how wrong!’
‘So you’re dead now, or what?’ inquired Jade, nervously.
The voice’s reply was silence. Jade realised she wasn’t going to get any form of straight answer so easily. ‘Ah!’ she continued, irony in her voice. ‘This is the part where you tell me I am dead, right?’
‘Sorry, young woman. But I really think you’re confusing me with somebody else. Someone you know, maybe?’
Jade raised an eyebrow. ‘Someone I wasn’t expecting, but I wouldn’t be surprised to meet again.’ She couldn’t help let out a slight chuckle. ‘Besides, there aren’t really many people you could meet in the desert, really. How am I so unlucky to have to come across two, I do not know.’
‘One would be glad to be considered a person. Still, in my position, I must deny I belong to such a claim,’ responded the voice.
‘Fine… mage, or whatever you claim to be,’ hissed Jade. ‘My lips are parched, and despite all this scorching light I still cannot see you. Reveal yourself or let me be on my way….’ she ended, sheathing her dagger and returning to her original path.
‘I would love to, but I don’t think I can. Sure,’ insisted Jade, raising her eyeballs and halting.
It had sped through the corridors of her mind already, but she wouldn’t focus on it so easily. The mere thought that she was speaking to a ghost in the middle of the desert was absurd. She had already had the misfortune of coming across one of the fabled men of the desert just yesterday – or so he had claimed to be. Speaking to a ghost of some dead mystical philosopher the next day was way too much. She loved mystery, she craved adventure – it was her life after all. It was what she did. But this journey was proving to be one of the most tedious survival trips she had ever endured so far. Then again, this was the Salaknah desert, and many a rumour spoke about how it had meddled with people’s brains.
Actually, this little adventure was soon going to prove to be the most rewarding. In a way she wasn’t even dreaming of. She might not ever come to understand it, but before this was over Jade was going to have the opportunity few others get in their lifetime: choice.
‘Before you go, missy,’ said the voice.
Jade shifted her head sideways hesitantly.
‘I am obliged to thank you for summoning me here. Your company, despite being ill tempered and brief, was the most pleasant.’
Jade raised an eyebrow, but didn’t move. ‘Summoned you?’
‘Yes,’ continued the voice, gathering a measured tone, ‘It would be my utmost and final pleasure. It would quench my curiosity, truth be told.’
‘You are a curious voice,’ replied Jade.
A heartening chuckle suddenly emanated from the voice. Jade thought it would never end. A smile kind of escaped her lips.
‘Melissa used to call me a mage… if I remember correctly, that was her name. What’s your name, by the way?’
‘Curious indeed!’ You really expect me to believe that you don’t know my name now, do you?’
‘I only ask about things that I don’t know. Well, that’s how things went when I was….’
‘Alright, fine. I’ve had enough of this theatre How about you reveal yourself?’
The silence that followed was so deep Jade swore she could for a moment hear her sweat trickling down her nape. The old man didn’t show himself, but the voice did break the silence after long.
‘So you really think I’m some old man,’ it said.
Jade frowned. ‘I don’t care.’
‘Yes, I never did either. Not much anyway. But at least you cared enough to stay… so far.’
Jade’s expression turned quizzical. ‘I’m just curious,’ she said, grinning at her own comment. ‘I wouldn’t be in the middle of this accursed desert if I weren’t.’
‘Neither would I,’ replied the voice.
‘Then maybe we share something in common.’ Funny as it were, Jade thought this might be true.
‘Both curious, eh?’
Jade nodded slightly. ‘More than I care to admit. Who is Melissa?’ she added almost unwillingly, narrowing her green eyes and trying hard to fight the awkwardness of not knowing where to fix them.
‘My wife,’ replied the voice without hesitation. ‘Of all the memories I still have – which are very few – she is the brightest and clearest. I can still picture her smile when I concentrate hard. The way her eyes used to shine, so beautifully even when she cried. Her memory is the only solace I have in this lonely and desolate place.’
‘Why are you here, in the desert, then?’ asked Jade, already knowing the answer.
‘I’m not in the desert, missy. I’m somewhere else,’ the voice replied, hesitantly.
Jade clenched her fists and looked away at the desert. But her curiosity was far stronger. ‘I’m Jade,’ she told the voice.
‘That’s a nice name. I don’t remember mine, unfortunately. Sorry.’
Then there was a silence in which the only voice that spoke was Jade’s inner one. She had been on harsh and wild ventures, but never had Jade felt so challenged and out of control of her own actions as now. She was feeling kind of defeated, mostly by the fact that the Salaknah desert had managed to reduce her mind into the state of actually believing she was conversing with a ghost. Surely this could be one of the old man’s tricks to teach her a life lesson once again; this notion had helped her keepsane through this strange trial. But now she told herself this might be the time to finally admit that she was wrong, on many aspects. Either that, or she had truly lost the contest – in which case the old man would soon reveal himself and scold her once more.
Lost in such thoughts, Jade raised her hands to her forehead only to realise she was somehow holding the piece of broken metal in her hand. Her reaction was blank, at first.
Until the voice spoke again. ‘That is part of the weapon that was used to kill me.’
‘So… uh… you are dead?’ replied Jade, raising her face to look at nothing again.
‘More than I care to admit,’ replied the voice. ‘I’ve made many mistakes in my life, Jade. The gravest of which led to my very own death. I thought I had conquered much when I learned to control the physical elements of this world. I had learned a lot, yes, that cannot be denied. My skill in the arts of magic had reached great heights, true. But they were just tricks, as the brave men used to call them. Tricks which made me believe I was undefeatable. For all the knowledge I possessed, I forgot the most important thing: I forgot how to be humble. The very opposite of humility is pride, Jade. And when pride takes a strong hold of one, that same one is prone to commit much wrong deeds.
‘I drowned in the pool of evil, for I underestimated its power: continuously telling myself that evil is like a cup from which one can take a sip without having to drink the whole container. And before I knew it, I had had my fill. Then the obvious followed: justice sought me ought. I managed to escape its clutches for a while. But my end was brought about by a deserter who was out of the law and driven by the same power – evil – in another form: revenge.’
Jade struggled to keep her jaw from dropping. She felt a sudden sense of pity for this spirit, and he read it well enough on her face.
‘You cannot help me, Jade. But I can help you, if you are ready to accept my aid.’
When it was evident Jade was in too much awe to reply, the voice continued. ‘I can help you avoid finding yourself here, when you die, in this place next to me. It’s too late for me to make amends, but not for you. All you have to do is carry that scrap of metal with you.’
‘You’re bonded to it, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ Jade lowered her eyes to look at the worn piece in her hand. She still couldn’t completely identify what the weapon must’ve been. But what mattered right now was her reply. She imagined herself going back to Faningor with the spirit of some dead mage constantly talking by her side. He promised he had much advice to offer. She didn’t doubt his heart, but maybe he was more right than he knew when he said it was too late. She had sometimes thought about her death – only the foolish believe they’ll live forever.
She raised her head and scanned the dunes around her, trying to spot anything that could be lurking beyond the horizons. The world wasn’t a kind place. That she had truly learnt. It had rarely been kind to her, and she imagined even less kind to this spirit, whoever he was, if he had ended up turning to evil ways.
Jade sighed heavily, looked down at the weathered object in her hand and prepared herself for giving her answer. For making her choice.