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Volume 1584
PART IV: Chapters 13-16


 Azara and I raced up the stygian staircase.  Below us, the sound of the gibbering horror crawled with unnerving speed.   We heart the fleshy slap of appendages as it heaved and surged, fitting its bulk through the narrow stairwell. 
 Several times, with more presence of mind than I possessed, she made us pause to lever heavy chamber doors to seal the staircase, before once again, fleeing with near panic.

 The gibbering nightmare would not be denied.   At the first of her doors, the abomination’s unspeakable sounds rose to an ear splitting howl.   It hurled its bulk at the offending barrier until again, it had broken through.  But by this time, we had sealed another door, each barrier buying us precious moments.

 We burst from the doorway of the dark tower into blessed sunlight.  But from the darkness, a hungry ululating noise rose up behind us.   Without hesitation, we leaped for the painstakingly carved staircase, almost tumbling down.   From one flight of steps to the next, we leaped and tumbled.   Twice Azara almost lost her balance, saved from falling the height of the cliff only by my desperate grip.  Once it was she that saved me, bodily strength swinging me back to our precarious pathway.

 Halfway down, the thing burst from the tower out into the air.   I risked a glance up towards it as it rolled its mass clumsily down the stairs.

 “Don’t look at it!”  Azara screamed, and jerked me out of my paralysis.  We redoubled our speed, almost falling the last lengths, not bothering and not caring about the niceties of handholds in the naked rock.

 Reaching the end of the stairs, the dried sea bottom was still dozens of feet below.   We scrambled to climb down, losing my grip I let go and kicked away from the rock, struggling to turn as I fell.   I heard a cry and knew that Azara too had lost her hold and was falling.

 I landed heavily on my back, the wind thrown out of me.  I gasped.   A few feet from me, Azara fell badly, and for a second, I was afraid she had broken her bones.  But she leaped to her feet.   We raced for our Thoat.

 There was no time to harness it or load it.   The thing from the pit was almost upon us.  The Thoat’s nostrils flared and it pulled hard against its tether, kicking to get free.   I mounted it bareback,  hauling Azara up behind me.  With my sword, I cut its tether, and then it was off racing just as the gibbering abomination lost its grip halfway up the cliff and fell hard into the sand behind us.

 But even as our Thoat leaped forward, from the corner of my eye, I sensed the thing righting itself.   The fall had not killed it any more than my bullets.

 How fast could it move, I wondered.   I desperately wanted to leave it far behind.   The Thoat beneath me needed no encouragement, its glimpse of the horror had shocked it near to madness, and it galloped with panicked intensity.

 The two of us clung desperately to its hide.   The beast was almost beyond control or governance.   It merely wanted to flee.   I thought to reach for my pistol, and then realized that both our pistols were left behind.

 “If it catches us,” Azara shouted in my ear.

 “We have our knives,” I said. 

 “We cannot fight it with knives,” she said.

 “I will not let it take us,” I yelled back at her.    I would not fall into the maw of that horror alive.   I felt her wrap her arms more tightly around me as she understood.

 Behind us, the horror plunged through the sand, an implacable force.

 But few things can match a Thoat’s speed, especially when it runs in blind panic.  Bit by bit, we lengthened our lead.

 But it would not give up, we heard it coming on behind us, breaching dune after dune with brute power.

 I began to fear for us.   For now, we were ahead of the creature, but how long could the Thoat run at this pace?  How long before its heart gave out and it fell exhausted?   Which would tire first, the Thoat or the abomination?

 Suddenly, we passed across a wide series of tracks.   I had only a second to register it.  Thoats and Zitidars and the paddle like footprints of Green Men, we had passed a moving tribe.   With a ferocious effort, I turned the Thoat, guiding it in a large looping arc back towards the Green Men’s trail.   Once we reached it, I set the creature to following it.  I could not tell, as we raced, whether I was heading towards the Green Men or away from it.

 Behind us, the thing roared.   It’s voices gibbered in my ear, but I dared not look back to see how close it was.  There was something about its sound, as if you could not truly tell how far or how close it was.   The Thoat lowered its head and redoubled its speed, I could feel Azara’s hands gripping me tightly, her body pressing hard against me.   We were helpless, all we could do was hold on tight and trust in the Thoat’s speed.

 How long we clung to the surging Thoat, fearing to look behind us, I cannot reckon.  Time seemed to stretch out endlessly, and yet it seemed almost instantaneous.   We crossed the distance, the beast pushing to its limits.

 Then as we crossed a dune, we burst upon a camp of Green Men.   Their women and children scattered among their tents as our Thoat thundered through.  Warriors raced for their weapons and their own tents.   A small herd of Thoats took flight and we were momentarily surrounded, but our creature took no notice.   Zitidars loomed before us, the voices booming, as their great bulk shifted.  The Thoat merely swerved around them.

 “It’s coming,” I screamed, hoping they could hear me.   “It’s coming, prepare yourselves!” 
 Mounted green men appeared before us, the Thoat veered crazily, several of its legs folding under it as it turned, and then regained its footing.  But more mounted green men hemmed us in.
 “It’s coming,” I shouted. 

 Then suddenly, they heard it, its mad gibbering drowning out all other sound.   The mounted green men forgot about us, their fierce visages directing towards something awful mounting the dune beyond their campsite.   From the camp there were shouts of horror.   The mounted green men spurred their Thoats, aiming their radium rifles at the abomination coming upon us.

 We drove, forgotten, between two green warriors and into the distance.   Behind us, a volley of shots rang out, and the abomination howled, though whether it was pain or rage or some emotion we cannot conceive I do not know.   Green Men and women shouted their battle cries, and the sound of rifles firing was joined by the shrieks of Thoats, and the clash of lances and swords.

 “Will they kill it,” Azara shouted behind me.

 “They must,” I yelled back.   Surely a small horde of green men, armed with rifles and endless rounds, would be sufficient.   And if they ran out of rounds, they had their blades, their lances and their courage.   The green men, I knew, were relentless in battle, they would fight to their last breath to seek victory or destroy their enemy.

 This was the last we would see of the thing.

 I hoped.

 Far behind us, the sounds of shots continued to ring out.

 Our Thoat did not slow.   Instead, the beast continued to run, all eight legs churning, head lowered, its body surging.   It headed out into the desert, beyond our ability to control.  Perhaps its mind was shattered, for it never paused, never lagged, but continued its relentless pace.

 Perhaps it was right.   I too had seen that thing that pursued us.  I had glimpsed it dimly in the darkness, and then from the corner of my eye as we’d fled madly down the cliff.   To see it was to invite madness, to be driven to flee and never stop running.

 So into the desert we drove.  The Green Men and their fateful battle were far behind us.   They must kill it, I told myself.  There was no other choice.

 And if they did not?

 Then perhaps it would be sated, devouring them.

 Or distracted.   Perhaps it would have forgotten about us.  Or lost the trail.  Or something.

 But none of these possibilities offered me peace.   The Thoat thundered beneath us, its legs pounding through the desert.   And I was happy to let it run forever.


 Sometime in the night, the Thoat began to cough as it ran.   Its pace faltered for a time, its speed slowing, its movements becoming uncoordinated.  I smelled the misery that radiated from its straining body.   Flecks of moisture stained my face.  I tasted them.  Blood.

 From somewhere, the creature found new reserves of strength.   Its pace quickened, its limbs seemed to regain their pounding force.

 But this did not last long.   It began to falter again, one of its left side legs was definitely weakened.  It began to drag that limb, running for a time on seven.

 It would not accept guidance, I could not slow it or force it to walk.   Instead, exhaustion slowed it, as its pace flagged.  It heaved and slowed to a trot, and then a walk.  But after a few moments, it forced itself to run again.

 Another leg seemed to give way, and it dragged itself forward on six.  Again it flagged, whining with fear, no longer even walking, but forcing itself forward with a series of lunges, until it found the strength to run again.

 It fell then, its chest plowing into the sand.  But so great was the beasts ingrained terror, that it struggled up again, forcing itself to a gallop, constantly coughing now, spitting gouts of blood into the hungry sands, only five legs moving.

 Then it fell a final time, throwing both Azara and I into the dune.

 But still, it would not give up.  With its last shreds of vitality, it kicked, trying to crawl forward.

 Then it was still.

 I crawled over to examine it, my knife ready.   It’s body was already cooling.  There was no mercy I could give it.

 I struggled to my feet and turned to Azara.  I grabbed her hand and pulled her after me, as I plodded into the desert.

 “Come,” I croaked.   “We must go.”

 “Go where?” she demanded.  “Where are we?”

 “Away,” I said, “we must get away, in case its still following.”

 I dragged her by main force up the surface of the dune and down to the next one.   A cold night wind was blowing sand, and grit filled my eyes and mouth.   But still, I pulled her. 

 “We must stop,” she cried out.

 “No,” I replied, falling to my knees but still struggling forward.

 “But we are lost!”

 Her arms wrapped around me, slowing me.   I wanted to struggle, but exhaustion was stealing over me.   We must flee, I thought, in case its coming.  But she would not let me, and slowly blackness crept over me.

 I woke with a sense of crushing terror, sitting bolt upright.  Azara rolled, pulling herself up onto hands and knees.

 It was morning, the sun rising over the dunes.  My whole body was gritty with sand, my muscles aching.  One side of me was warm, from where she’d pressed her body to mine as we slept.  The other side cold.

 We were still alive.   It had not found us.

 It was dead, perhaps.   Or perhaps it had merely lost us, or forgotten about us.   Morning gave me a sense of security, of confidence.   I could tell myself that the thing had not been so horrible.  It was just fright, that was all.   And so long as I did not think too much about it, I could pretend to believe it.

 “Where are we?” she asked.

 I shrugged.

 “I have no idea, Princess,” I replied.

 I stared at the sky, the stars were fading as the sun rose, but I tried to gain some bearings by the few bright ones remaining.   The sun was to the East, I knew.   I turned a slow circle.  The Thoat was nowhere to be seen, whatever track it had left would be long gone, and anyway, I had no idea whether its course had been straight.

 We were in the empty deserts, I thought.   But the desert was not infinite.   All we had to do was walk in the right direction, and we’d come to its edge, if we lived long enough.

 Or we could walk in the wrong direction and die.

 “Northeast,” I said aloud with more confidence than I felt.   “There are hills in that direction.  With hills, valleys.  With valleys, enough water to support life, plants and small animals.  We go northeast.”

 “Is it gone,” she asked me   “Do you think they killed it?”

 I shrugged fatalistically.

 “I hope so,” I said.  “But all I know is that it is not here, and if we are not careful, this desert will kill us as thoroughly as it would have.”

 We were in bad shape, I thought.   Between us, we had little more than our harnesses.   I had my sword, a knife and an empty radium pistol.   She had only a knife I had given her.   I climbed to the top of the highest dune I could find, but I saw only endless dunes stretching out to the horizon.

 I sighed.  Could we find our Thoat?    Before the day was out, its carcass would be attracting predators.  But right now, its blood might be our only drink.   I looked around, there were not even tracks showing where we had come from.  The creature’s body could be anywhere.

 Carrion birds would signal it, of course.  But then, it would signal the desert lions as well.  With painful reluctance, I decided to abandon the creature.

 “Come,” I said to Azara, “we should start walking.”

 We walked east till noon, keeping to the cool shadows.   When the sun was high we burrowed into the cooler west side of a dune to rest.   Later, as the sun hung low, we began our march again, traveling well into the night. 

 When the stars came out, I could take better bearings and adjusted our course.   The night sky was bright, the moons full over our heads. 

 Azara surprised me then, for she did not complain at all.  Instead, she marched tirelessly at my side, neither heat nor cold seemed to bother her.   I had not expected a hothouse flower such as she to be so stoic.

 “You are doing well,” I said as we held each other in the coldest part of the night, taking what rest we could burrowing into the fading warmth of the sand.   She nodded, but made no reply.

 Perhaps she was afraid to speak, afraid of where conversations might lead.

 In early morning, I woke up suddenly, startled from nightmares.   I roused Azara and we began to trudge once again.   I did not feel rested from my fitful sleep, fatigue lay on me like a blanket.   I was tired and thirsty.   But Azara did not complain, so I could not.  She did not speak.

 What was going through her mind, I wondered.   I could not stop thinking about what had happened, what she had said.

 “I take it,” I offered finally, “that there is no point to going on to Aztor.”

 “No,” she replied.  “There is nothing there for me.  There is nothing for me anywhere, for I have murdered everyone I love.”

 So it was depression and self pity that marked her silence?  I had little taste for that.  Let her suffer in it.  I was glad then that she was not whining about it to me.

 “Not yet,” I replied, “but soon perhaps.”

 So, I thought, no gold and jewels.  No appointment to nobility.  No high position in her court.  No standing guard at her chamber door while some inbred fop laboured grunting over her body.   Easy come, easy go, I supposed.

 On the other hand, her betrothed was out of the picture, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad.

 I started to chuckle, and in fits and starts it turned into full blown laughter.  She looked at me, but said nothing.  I suspect that she was annoyed that my humour was spoiling her self pity.  For some reason, this only made me laugh harder.

 “You are a strange person,” she said finally.

 “That makes two of us,” I replied.

 But the sun wore down on us, and by the time midday forced us to stop and rest, there was little humour left in me.   Mostly I was tired, hungry and thirsty.

 The next day’s march, I found myself weakening.  My tongue swelled in my mouth, and my footsteps dragged.   My limbs were like lead.   I stumbled and fell, but somehow, Azara picked me up.  She seemed little affected by the desert.

 My strength waned through the evening.   Late into the night, I found I could not go on.   I shivered and shook as Azara held me, giving me warmth of her body.  I was freezing cold, and I could feel sweat breaking out upon my brow.   I did not have long, I knew.

 “It seems,” I said my voice croaking and cracked, “that you will be correct.”

 “Hush,” she whispered.  I don’t think she understood my joke.

 My sleep was fitful and disturbed.   Finally, once again, before the sun rose, we began to trudge again.   Had I gotten it wrong?  Were we going deeper into the desert?   I could no longer tell.  I no longer thought about anything but putting one foot in front of the other.

 The sun rose up into the sky.   I realized that the sand before me was too thick, and for a second, I thought I might be in a sandstorm, but I had merely fallen.   Azara helped me to my feet, but after an hour, I fell again.   Again, she lifted me, but I fell to my knees.  My strength was gone.

 I leaned forward, resting my weight on my elbows.   Keep moving, I told myself.   My will felt weak as it lashed my unresponsive body.  I began to crawl forward.

 I felt Azara pulling me up once again.   Where did she get the strength?  Her vitality was barely diminished by this hellish desert.   She got her shoulder under my arm and heaved me to my feet.  My legs felt like rubber.

 I knew then that I would not make it.   All I could do was drag her down with me.

 “Keep going,” I croaked.  “Leave me, I need to rest a bit.  Keep going, and I will join you.”

 “If I leave you,” she said, “you will die.”

 “No,” I replied.  “I’ll be all right.  Go ahead of me, find water, and come back to me.  Go straight, keep going northeast.”

 “I will not leave you,” she said firmly.   Even her voice was clear, unaffected by the desert.   What was she made of, I wondered with frustration.

 A burst of anger flared, and my legs straightened, supporting my own weight.  I tried to push her away, but lacked the strength.

 “If you don’t leave me,” I said hoarsely, “you will die!”

 “Then we die together,” she told me, “for I will not let you go.”

 If I had the moisture left for tears, I would have wept.


 We marched, or rather, Azara marched and dragged me, all through the day.   Her footsteps took on a steady rhythm that told me that she had been holding back for me for some time.   The sun rose, but her pace did not flag.    She did not stop to rest, the midday sun beat down on us, but still she walked on.   Night fell, and the cold of deepest night seemed to bother her no more than the sun at its fiercest.

 Morning rose, and I was half dead.  We no longer pretended that I was even trying to follow.  Instead, my arms were draped over her shoulders, and she dragged me hanging on her back.

 The sand must have given way to rock for some time before I noticed.   My boots scuffed on pebbles or along the slopes of great outcrops of naked stone.   From time to time, the shadows of boulders fell on us.

 “Azara,” I croaked, “we’ve made it.  We are saved.   This is hill country.”

 “It’s empty,” she said.   “As lifeless as the desert.”

 “Stop,” I told her.   “Stop now at the top of this rise and we will take our bearings.”

 Obediently, she stopped at the top of the outcrop.   As she released me from her back, I fell heavily.  She helped me sit up, and I stared blearily around.

 “There!”  With a shaky arm, I pointed to a range of hills due north.   I judged the distance to be a few hours walk.   Delirium was pulling hard at me, and it was an effort to keep my thoughts straight.

 “It looks dry and dead as all the rest,” she said doubtfully.

 “Ah, but those hills cast shadows,” I croaked.   “And in those shadows, moisture collects, and hardy plants grow, including some we can eat.   There may even be small pools to drink from.”

 Without complaint, she pulled me onto her back.   The last of my strength fading, I gave way to delirium, mumbling incoherently.   My feet bounced off the rocks and pebbles alike two sacks.  I barely noticed.

 Before I knew it, we were within the shadows of the hills.   The sudden coolness broke my delirium, and I found the strength to lift my head and look around.   There, beside a ridge was an area of deeper shadow.

 “Go there,” I tried to point, “it’s a cave.   If there’s water, it will collect somewhere in there.”

 Obediently, she dragged us in that direction. 

 It was cold, I opened my eyes.  We were within the cave.  Had I lost consciousness?  I breathed deep and coughed, my body shaking.  But my heart leaped, for I’d found a taste. 

 “I smell water,” I mumbled.   If only it wasn’t delirium.   Azara was laying me down upon a bed of drifted sand, she was paying no attention to my mutterings.   Feebly I grabbed her arm.

 “I smell water,” I repeated, forcing strength into my voice.  I sounded feeble and rasping, but she heard this.   “There is water here, probably deep.  You must find it.”

 Here eyes met mine, and she nodded.   Exhausted, I let my head sink down onto the sand.

 “I fear to leave you,” she said.   “If I go, will you die?”

 I chuckled, or tried to, it came up as dry coughing.  I shook my head and tried to reassure her, but my voice failed me.

 She lifted my head in her hands, and bent her face to kiss my lips.

 “Do not die on me, Torakar Thor,” she whispered, “I could not bear to lose you.”

 Again, I must have lost consciousness.   For the next thing I knew, she was lifting me up to a sitting position.   My eyes flickered open.   Her face, grave and serious hovered before me.   She had failed, I knew.   It was all right, I tried to tell her that I forgave her, that there was nothing to forgive, nothing to regret.   It had been a good life, but now I was done with it.

 Her lips pressed to mine, parting them.  And then, suddenly, there was a trickle of moisture in my mouth, a drop of cool water.  Hungrily I sucked on it, and more flooded into my mouth, bathing my tongue, soothing my parched throat.

 At length, she released me from the kiss.

 “What?”  I cried.   “How?”   My voice sounded cracked and awful, but stronger now that I had swallowed, and my parched tissues had tasted moisture.

 “I found the water, Torakar,” she told me, her voice thick with love, “just as you said.   I could only carry it in my mouth.    I found water, and more, I found plants.”

 Hope gave me knew strength and I propped myself up on one elbow.

 “I need more,” I said.

 “I’ll get more,” she replied.

 “Can you bring me there?”

 “No,” she said, “the way is too difficult.   Rest my darling, and I’ll return.”

 And with that, she was gone, and I could only lay there feeling my hope and courage renew and wonder at her supernatural vitality.

 Within the shadow of the cave there was only the faint light from its mouth.   Night and day grew indistinct.   A dozen times she returned with mouthfuls of water, each time performing her life giving kiss.   On the later trips, she brought plants and weeds, and I identified the ones that were safe to eat for her.

 She fed me from them, sparingly and by hand, giving me what my stricken frame could tolerate, and then she pulled me to her, curling my lanky body within her frame, and we slept.

 The next day, I found my delirium had broken, and I could think clearly without effort.  I had regained enough strength to stand, though I was still as weak as a newborn babe.   Again she spent the day bringing me water in her kisses, gathering what edible weeds she could find.

 We regained enough composure to talk about inconsequential things.

 “Where do you think we are?”  She said.

 I chuckled, though it hurt slightly to do that.

 “Lost,” I said.   “Most certainly lost.   That tower was far from anywhere, and we cannot tell how far the Thoat ran, or in what direction.   All we can say is that we’re somewhere on the hinterlands of the desert.”

 “That’s not helpful, is it?”  She said glumly.

 “You have an appointment?   Is there someplace you should be right now?” I teased her.  For now I had the strength to do it, and I was simply elated to be alive.   I had come far too close to my final journey, and I knew it.  I’d felt death’s hand.

 Despite herself, she smiled.

 “I love your smiles,” I told her, “though it is near a military campaign to drag one out of you.   When we get out of this, I shall make it a point to force one out of you every day.”

 “Presumptuous Panthan,” she smirked.

 “Two smiles!”  I said.   “I’m getting good at this.”

 “You’re good at a great many things, oh warrior woman,” she told me.   “So how do we get out of this?”

 “Two things,” I replied, “secondly, we are practically out.  We’ve survived the desert, all we need do is rest, recover and travel, living off the land until we find civilization.   From there, I will pose as a wandering panthan, you will pose as my slave, we may make our way to wherever you wish.”

 “I am already your slave,” she said, teasingly, “but what was the first thing?  Or has delirium scattered your wits?”

 “There was a first thing?”

 “You mentioned a first thing.”

 “Did I?”

 “I heard it distinctly.”

 “Oh that, well, it is a very important thing, which is why it must come first.”

 “Indeed, well then, you should try not to forget it.”
 “I promise you, I have fixed it in my mind, and once fixed, it is never lost.”

 “Excellent then,” she replied, “what is it?”

 “You want to know what the first thing is?”

 “Indeed,” she said, “I should want for nothing else but to know.”

 “Well,” I smiled, “if you really must know, I think I should tell you.”

 “Then we are in agreement.”

 “Yes, I suppose so,” I found myself almost grinning.   A few hearbeats passed.

 “Well?”  She said.


 “The first thing?”

 “Oh that,” I said, “I thought you had forgotten.”

 “I think one of us has forgotten, but it was not me.”

 “You accuse me of forgetting,” I replied, “pish, I knew it all along.”

 “Well, what is it then?”

 “If you must know...”

 “I must!”

 With utter satisfaction, I whispered.

 “The first thing,” I told her, “is that you must kiss me now.”

 “Hah,” she said, “I knew that too.”

 And our lips met.   That night, she curled up within my arms, and for the first time in many nights, my sleep was long and dreamless. 

 I woke up in the morning to find her gone.   At first, I thought little of it, and munched on the weeds she had brought for us.   They were poor fodder, and you could well starve to death eating them.  But at least they filled our bellies and returned our strength.   We would find better fare.

 As I stared at them in the morning light of the cave mouth, I noticed something odd about them.   They looked like water plants, with the thick fleshy stems and broad flat leaves.   I’d never quite seen their likes, but their types were common enough around the junctures of canals.  Where had she gotten them?   They certainly could not have grown inside of a cave.   I would have to ask when she returned.

 But she did not return.   Outside the cave, the sun grew high in the sky.  But still, there was no sign of her.   I ventured into the darkness of the cave, trying to listen for the sound of her.  But my ears found nothing.   Ice grew around my heart, and travelled up the base of my spine.   Where plants like that would grow, there would also be predators, both two and many legged.

 “Azara,” I called.   My voice was still feeble, but growing fear gave it strength.   There was no answer.

 “Azara,” I bellowed again and again into the cave.   But there were only echoes.

 Suddenly afraid, I rushed to the mouth of the cave.  Perhaps she’d found some oasis out there?   I pulled my sword, ready to leap to her defense, or to avenge her.   My growing fear for her gave me something close to my normal strength.

 But beyond the cave mouth, there were only the single set of tracks where she had dragged me.   She had not left the cavern.

 I turned back into the darkness, with a conviction that she was in trouble, that she needed me.   She had needed me, and I had slept.



 At the cave mouth, Azara drank, cupping the water in her hands and gulping loudly.  In the dark water, she could just glimpse small things swimming, but she was not quick enough to catch them.   She’d tried to slip into the water the first time she had found it, but it had been too deep. 

 Since then, she had been content to drink and pluck the vegetation that grew along the narrow lip of shore at the cave’s mouth in the hopes that Tora might find some sustenance from it.   Then as she dipped her head to take the precious mouthful of water that her lover needed, a face appeared in the water inches from her own.

 Its eyes were large and jet black, its forehead bulging, its nose and jaw thrust forward forming a short muzzle.   Instead of hair on its head, it had a short glossy coat of fur which covered its scalp and face.  But for all that, it had the strange semblance of humanity and intelligence.

 Startled, Azara expelled her mouthful of water.  Bubbles cascaded from her mouth as she gasped in shock and tried to scramble backwards to the suddenly welcoming darkness of the cave.  But the creature below seized her head in its hands and dragged her forward into the water.

 Azara struggled to scream but water invaded her mouth, coarsing to fill her lungs as the being dragged her under.

 I shouted till my lungs were hoarse, but I heard no sound but echoes.

 I went back to the entrance to our cave, studying the sands.  I picked up a handful squeezed it through my fingers.   Coarse, I grunted with frustration.   The winds here would not blow this easily.

 Only one set of tracks.  I could see her footsteps heavy in the sand, partially obscured in places by the ruts left by my feet dragging.   Some of the footprints were very distinct.  No one else had walked in these footsteps to reach us, she had not walked backwards to get out.  Either would have muddled the tracks and laid over my drag marks.

 A flier perhaps?   Ridiculous.  It might as well be a giant bird lifting her and taking her away.   She’d come and gone a dozen times before vanishing, I couldn’t imagine a flyer or a bird returning her again and again before flying away with her.

 I held my head low to the ground and sniffed.   No scent of water.   And for that matter, no plants.

 Satisfied that she had not vanished this way, I turned back to the cave.   Only a short distance in the light failed and it congealed to pitch darkness.   I could not see my hand in front of my face.   I pressed my face to the stone, breathing deeply, searching for her scent, crawling in the darkness.

 There, along a ledge she’d climbed, pressing her body.   A faint odour of her.   She never had anything more than a faint odour, to leave this trace, she’d had to pass this point every time.

 I retreated, crawling backwards and sat in the cave mouth, thinking.   She’d gone into the dark.   In delirious raving, I’d told her to go in and find water, and she had gone.  I was touched by the courage it must have taken.   There was far more to that pretty little girl than I had suspected. 

 Was this why she had such an effect upon me?   I had had scores of lovers, but there was something about her.   The compass of my life shifted inexorably, as if the poles of my life had been changed.   I did not understand why or how, and I did not care.   All I knew was that I wanted her back.

 I examined the scraps of plants she had returned, eating the last of the edible ones and carefully rolling the rest in the coarse sand.   When they were gray and heavy, I worked them together braiding them into a length of coarse ropelike wick as long as my forearm.

 The plants were key.    She might have found water inside the cave.   But the plants?  They could not grow in a cave.   There must have been sunlight, which meant that the cave had to open.   So somewhere in these caverns, there was a route to...  Somewhere else.  Somewhere with water and life.

 Something had happened to her the last time.   She had taken the wrong turn, become lost.  Or fallen and been injured.   Or perhaps out on the other side, there had been something, or someone waiting for her.

 I took off my harness, binding the leather straps one to another until they formed a serviceable length, and fashioned two buckles into a hook.   Then I used the hook to strike sparks until the tip of my sand soaked wick began to burn.   I studied it critically, it was smoky and slow burning, but it produced a faint serviceable light.   Quickly, I wrapped my unraveled harness around my shoulder, using it to bind my sword and knife.

 “I’m coming,” I whispered aloud.   I was still weak, I could feel the tremble in my limbs, but it didn’t matter.   Somewhere in the darkness, she needed me.

 I crept through the darkness, with only the guttering wick to light my way.   Deeper and deeper I went.  A few times I came across her scent on the rocks where her hip had scraped, or were she’d paused to rest.   There were branching tunnels, some so low and narrow I had to crawl on all fours.   Twice I lost her trail and had to painstakingly backtrack hundreds of yards until I found it again.

 I grew hungry and thirsty, but ignored the demands of my body.   Finally, I came to a long chamber ending in a massive sheet of rock.   I studied it.   Some time, perhaps thousands of years ago, perhaps only weeks, there had been an earthquake, this mountain sheered, one side moving up, the other down, and then it had settled back, the two sides pressing against each other.   The cave passage had been blocked by living rock as surely as a door had closed.

 But that couldn’t be, I thought.   Old entrances had been sealed, but there must have been another entrance opened.   After all, she’d found water.   So where was it? 

 She had come this way, the last scent of her, a few stray hairs had been in this tunnel, and there had been no branchings.

 My wick was guttering, I had only a little light left.   Carefully, I crept along the wall, looking for her passageway.   There in the fading light, I found it, a passage just large enough to admit a body.  I placed my head in, breathing deeply.   The scent of water came to me.  As the wick died, I cast it aside.  I’d have to rely upon touch and scent only.

 I had made a mistake, I was to learn.  The light had played me false.  Azara had had no light, she’d had to crawl along the floor, seeking with her fingertips, and thus, she’d found a different passageway.

 But I did not know that, and as I crept down the wrong passage, my heart was light.  I felt an irresistable optimism.   I was careful and I was strong and I was clever.  I would find her soon, rescue her, and we would escape together.

 The passage shifted, becoming tall and narrow.   Soon, I was inching through sideways.  I could find no trace of her scent, though her body must have rubbed againt these rocks.  Nevertheless, I was convinced I was on her trail.

 As I moved further in, I became aware of a slight breeze.   The caverns breathed, with the cool air of night and the warm air of day, air moved back and forth.   We’d been fortunate to find the cave at the time that we had.   A few hours later, a few hours earlier, and the scent of water would not have carried to us.

 I breathed deeply, tasting moisture in the air.   It was thick and humid, wherever the water was, it must be close.   I was careful not to hurry, moving slowly and cautiously, testing my way.   In this darkness, the next step might be into an abyss.   Or it might be into Azara’s arms.  My heart began to race.   I smelled a rich broth of plants and animals in the air, a thickness of life that reminded me of forest or jungle.

 Then, as I reached out to feel the rock before me, I realized I could just make out my hand, a slightly difference in the perpetual shadow.  Light!   Still wary of traps and pitfalls, I continued slowly, but the light grew and grew.   Gradually, the passageway opened until I could walk through easily, the light grew and I could see the mouth of the cave silhouetted

 I walked into the light.

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