I was in Kimmini's sandpit. She was sitting on the swing, like I had seen her so often. But she was dead, she had to be dead. I pulled myself upright and wiped most of the sand off me. I was so confused - if she was dead, did that mean that I was dead? I couldn't be dead - I couldn't survive so much only to die now. I had to know.
She jumped off the swing with a squeal. "Na'Tiel! I've been waiting for you!" She ran to me and hugged me. "It's been over two weeks - I thought you would never come to see me! Did you bring me a present?"
"Uhh, no. I don't have anything to give you."
"Oh well...you came to see me, anyway."
Kimmini seemed happy and as full of life as ever, yet I had thought that she was dead. How had I gotten here? My thoughts came jumbling out, "I've been in the desert for more than two weeks, and you're supposed to be dead. Last time I saw you, you had just been admitted to Tamorein or whatever it is called and then you fell ill with the plague that has swept the globe. I don't understand."
"Don't be silly. Come on, give me a push."
I was so confused. My clothing was not filthy, but pristine. I took one glove off to feel my face - my hide was smooth and flexible again, not blistered and cracked. Maybe I had had a very bad dream. Yes, that was it.
"Push me, Na'Tiel."
I don't know what sort of charm this child had over me, but I was her devoted slave. I pushed her, I played with her, and then she got tired. She asked me to read her a story. My first thoughts were that I didn't speak her language - we had only ever communicated in Earther and by the wordless language of bodies.
"It'll have to be in Earther because I don't read Markab."
"That's not a problem," she said, producing a book and handing to me. "Read me this story." She opened it up and gave it to me.
The text was in Narn. Well, that would make it easy to read at least.
"Tyronin had to undergo many challenges before he could become a Warrior Hero. The first of these was the challenge of fire. He trekked for many days and had to beg to enter the temple. There he was shown his first test by Kronos, the wise man and seer attending the temple.
"'You must walk across these coals in your bare feet whilst bearing me upon your back. The fire burns those who are not strong and true, and cleanses and purifies those who are strong in the faith.'
"Tyronin was filled with great fear, for the hot coals were shaped into a long and winding path across the room. A warrior without feet could not fight. But Tyronin's faith was strong and his heart true, and so he submitted to the test.
"He stepped upon the hot coals. Every step brought agony to him, shooting up through his legs and body and piercing his mind. Every step was a lesson in faith. Every step purified him. He followed the path of coals, persisting despite the agony of their heat. Each step brought him closer to his goal.
"He stayed true and strong, and completed the test of fire. To his amazement, his feet were undamaged. He had passed one challenge, but had three more to go.
"The wise man gave him a key which signified that he had passed this test and gave him entrance to his next test. 'Guard this key well for you will need it' he was warned."
There was a picture of the key in set into the text, yet what I saw was an oddly shaped mountain.
"Kronos blessed Tyronin, who went on to the next of his challenges."
I shut the book at the end of the story. Kimmini took it from me and told me that she was going to bed. "Thank you for coming to see me. Bye!" She skipped inside.
I awoke in blazing heat with the midday sun beating down on me. A few eddies of sand still swirled but the sandstorm had blown away. I pulled myself out of the sand hollow and dusted myself down. I had had the strangest dream - probably the result of exhaustion and fear and lying in the hot sun. I was not as tired as I had been and could actually walk now.
I pulled the walkie talkie out off my belt and tried to speak to my companions. The thing wouldn't work. I hit it a couple of times to see if that helped, then opened up the battery compartment. Everything seemed fine. I managed to prise the casing off the back of it.
The circuitry was blackened. It wouldn't be working again. Shrock!
I checked the navcomp. It wasn't working either. How was I to find my way to the town now? How would I find my way back to my companions? I couldn't care if the Pak'ma'ra died, and Russell was of little consequence, but Nar'Bon was important. I could not let him down. I could see mountains in the distance. Maybe they would provide me with landmarks and navigation points. I had a rough idea of the direction I had been travelling in, and as long as I walked just slightly across the dunes, I should be able to find the town or the road leading to it.
It was hot and I should have been resting through the noon day sun, but I had no shelter apart from that afforded by my half-shredded water sling. I had plenty of water still so I decided that I should walk. I had only around 10km to go. I climbed to the top of the sand dune and there, before me, I saw the very shape of the key in Kimmini's story. A double pointed mountain.
I had a strange feeling of unreality, that this wasn't happening to me, that this was not the world I had inhabited before the sandstorm as I set out towards the key mountain. Kimmini had touched my mind again, yet she must be more than two weeks dead. I have never understood the world of telepaths and have avoided contact with them, yet here was this little girl who had taken me back to the worst day of my life - it was undoubtedly she who had done that - and who had touched my heart and now was still reaching out to me from beyond the grave. I didn't understand, but I knew what I had to do.
I trod the burning sands that were like unto hot coals and went to face my test.
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