Dry winds buffeted me as I trudged over the sand dune. I pulled my hat down to cover my face better.
To my right, Lily was emptying another bottle of water while fanning herself with her hand and glaring angrily at Kai.
“Kai, can’t you take out a jeep or something? Why do we have to keep walking in this heat?” she said.
“Heat? What heat? Amy, do you feel hot?” he asked, innocently.
“No.” I replied, simply.
Well I am the Fire Goddess so it is only natural is it not?
“Kai…I’ve already deduced that you’re keeping yourself cool with your Ability somehow. You aren’t even sweating at all.” Runir croaked, pushing the words out of his parched throat.
His dark robes were wet with perspiration and his normally stoic expression was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he was panting like a dog.
“I thought so! If you don’t give it to us…” Lily said, taking out her dagger.
“For once I must agree with the Hero. Give us an A.C or suffer the consequences…” said Runir, brandishing his sword.
Kai looked at them and sighed.
“What do you think I should do Amy?” he said, suddenly turning towards me.
“You don’t have to do anything. They can use water magic to cool themselves down.” I said.
Kai smiled while the others glared at me before activating water magic to cover themselves with swirling, icy winds.
“You’re using a Rank 5 spell to cool your sweat? Talk about overkill…” Kai smirked.
“Shut up!” said Lily.
“Almost got another ring…” Runir said, with a disappointed sigh.
A gust of hot air blew my hat off. It rolled down the dune and settled on the sand below.
I frowned and went down to pick it up but it disappeared.
“Here you go.” said Kai, placing my hat on my head.
“Thank you.” I said.
“No problem.” he said, smiling.
“Damn it, this is unfair!” complained Lily.
“Why did you use your Ability this time?” asked Runir.
“Would have been a pain to go down there. Besides, we’re running behind schedule. We need to get to the village before nightfall.” he said, walking down the other side of the dune.
“Village? What village?” asked Runir.
“The Crumbling Sand village.” replied Kai.
“That’s not right…I never saw a village like that on the map.” Runir said, frowning.
I couldn’t hear what Kai said because I was suddenly distracted by a surprising yet familiar feeling.
It faded into the background ever since I learned how to unconsciously direct Mana towards it so I barely ever felt it anymore.
But now, for the first time in centuries… I felt a tug on my soul.
It was coming from straight in front of me. A pull so powerful that I almost let myself get swept away like I did all those years ago.
But I managed to hold on, biting my lips to distract myself with the pain and the metallic taste of blood in my mouth.
I clenched my fists, driving my nails into my flesh.
“We’re almost there…” I heard someone say from far away.
“Just two days away from Beigo…”
The pull became stronger. I felt my feet beginning to slip so I dug them into the sand.
But the pull started dragging me through the sand.
Powerless. Unable to resist. Like a puppet on a string.
Just like the Haze.
Like watching Jeffi die in my arms.
Like watching Yunni take her last breath.
Like being stuck in a world of darkness and ash.
I hated feeling powerless. Hated being unable to control my own body.
And I sure as hell hated Fate.
But I couldn’t do anything about it. Couldn’t help but let the powerful tug on my soul pull me ever so slowly towards it.
“…I’m gonna puke…”
I heard whispers but I ignored them. My sight was blurry and my senses distant, but I could barely make out the scene in front of me.
Broken buildings. Cracked roads. Shattered houses.
The stench of rotting corpses and dried blood.
Holes in the ground. Claw marks on the walls.
Bones and skeletons with their meat picked clean.
And of course, a silence so heavy it was almost palpable.
This village was dead. There wasn’t a soul in sight but…
I could feel it. There was someone here and they were calling to me, praying to me.
Over the centuries the pulls had gotten weaker and less frequent, perhaps because people realized that I wasn’t omniscient or all-powerful.
But this was different. Whoever was calling out to me was doing so with the conviction that I would hear and I would come. Or perhaps their desire to meet me was just too incredibly pure, profound and clear.
Whoever this person was, they really wanted to talk to me.
I tried diverting more mana towards them but it was no use. They rejected my mana like it wasn’t enough or rather, as if that wasn’t what they wanted at all.
But that was confusing, because most people who called me would be fine after receiving some mana or at least their pull on my soul would lessen.
If you were stuck under a collapsed building, you could use my mana to blast your way out. Attacked by a monster? Shoot a fireball. Gotten lost? Send up a flare.
But for whatever reason, this person couldn’t use my mana to rescue themselves.
I unconsciously followed the others through the ruined village. I never spoke much anyways so no one commented on my silence.
But the pull was getting stronger and stronger and I…couldn’t hold on.
So I let myself go.
I was viciously pulled through the wall beside me, sending chunks of sandstone flying into the air. I tumbled through the sand, smashed through an empty house and demolished pillar after pillar.
At last I arrived next to a collapsed house and lay sprawled on the ground, panting for breath.
“Amy! Are you alright?” I heard someone say.
But even though I’d reached the source of the pull, the tug on my soul didn’t lessen at all.
“Stop! I am here! Tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you but please, stop!” I shouted, holding my head between my hands.
The tug vanished and I could finally think clearly again. I calmed my breath and got up.
“Amy, what happened? Why did you suddenly start barreling through walls?” asked Lily.
“It is nothing. Just-” I began, but I felt a sharp tug again.
I walked over the rubble and crouched down over a broken wall. The crumbling sandstone was stained with blood and gore.
The rubble shifted, revealing an eye in the shadows.
“Amy, stop going off on your own-” Lily said before noticing the eye. “Fuck! There’s someone over here! Runir, Kai, come help!” She said, leaning over to pick up a stone.
Runir rushed over and saw the blood and the eye and immediately began helping Lily clear the rubble.
I looked over at Kai and noticed that he was clenching his fists and looking down at his feet. I’d never seen Kai this troubled before and the sight made me feel uneasy. This wasn’t going to be a simple rescue mission, I realized.
“….ll…e….” a groan came from under the rubble just as the sharp tug on my soul reappeared.
I saw a bloody, mangled shape slowly taking shape beneath the rubble.
Runir stopped to puke and Lily’s expression paled as well but Kai still didn’t help, staring at the grotesque sight while biting his lips.
Lily removed the last of the rubble and turned away, unable to bear the sight.
A twisted body caked with blood and refuse, and giving off a foul odor. Runir went and puked again.
I stepped closer to it, drawn by the pull on my soul.
“I-I can heal it. Kai, come help. We can…we can…” Lily stammered.
“…ki…m…se….” another groan came from the twisted shape. I couldn’t even tell where its mouth was.
The pull intensified, filling my mind with pain and grief. I lunged forward, raising my sword.
I brought down my sword just as my mind was flooded with emotions. Emotions that weren’t mine.
Blood sprayed through the air.
I blacked out.
I woke up in a strange room. The walls were a shade of red so bright you’d think you’d go blind but for some reason, the brightness was comforting.
It was strange. I didn’t have a body here, or at least not a real body.
Instead, I floated in the center of the room as a small ball of red light. In front of me was a blurry white shape.
The shape started becoming more defined. Flabby arms, a short stature and a wrinkled face. It was an old man. An old man who looked strangely familiar even though I was sure that I’d never seen him before.
“Thank you, oh Lord of the Flames.” he said, bowing his head so hard that it banged against the ground.
“I knew…I knew you’d listen. Everyone forgot but I didn’t. Our ancestors always said that the Fire Goddess would help us if we prayed to her in our time of need.”
I remained silent, still trying to understand the situation.
“When…when the monsters killed my family, I’d already lost all reason to live. My wife…they tore her to pieces. My son…splattered across the walls. My daughter…eaten alive.” he said, crying and sobbing.
I remained silent, to respect his suffering.
“And then…then they…my grandson…” he cried even louder.
I remained silent, not knowing what to say.
“But when they came to me I felt relieved. The pain was unbearable, not the pain of having my body ripped up and twisted into unimaginable shapes. The pain of losing them…that was unbearable.” he said, quietly.
I remained silent, a sour feeling rising up inside me.
“But then they left me! They left me alive! Those damnable monsters left me alive! Alive to stew in my own juices! Alive to wallow in pain and sorrow! I couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear it at all. Why did they do it? They’re monsters, if they were hungry, they could have eaten me like they ate my daughter! Did they want to torture me? Did they want me to die a slow, agonizing death all alone in the ruins of my home while grieving for my family? What purpose would that serve? Why would they do that?
I hesitated before answering.
“I do not know.” I admitted.
He looked at me with a bitter smile.
“I didn’t expect one such as you to know, oh exalted one. The only answer I could think of was that it was an act of cruelty. An irrational act of cruelty. I suppose the cruelty of monsters and mortals is beneath you.” he said, before looking down again.
“More importantly…thank you.” Tears fell down his cheeks. “Thank you for taking pity on my lowly self. I did not deserve…do not deserve your kindness, your pity. I lost faith in you and at times I…I questioned your magnificence. But now I know! I know that you are-”
“No.” I said, cutting him off. “I am not all powerful. I am not all knowing. I am not invincible. If I was, I would never have let you endure such pain in the first place. If anything it is I who must apologize for my powerlessness.”
“Please don’t! I do not deserve your apologies, Eminent One. Even if you aren’t all powerful, at least you were willing to help me. At least you gave me your pity.” he said, looking at me.
I felt a bitter feeling rise up inside me.
The only reason I’d helped this man was because I was pulled by his prayers. I didn’t take pity on him, I just wanted to stop the tug on my soul.
Did I kill him because I felt sorry for him…or because I felt sorry for myself?
The old man gave me a contented smile.
“You know, even though you’re an ancient Goddess, you keep reminding me of my granddaughter. She wasn’t killed by the monsters. She had a weak body so we never let her play outside with the other children but we loved her and I’d like to think that she loved us back. You remind me of her because your personalities are the same. So stiff and inflexible. Always carefully thinking about what to say, never really opening up her heart. She was always afraid of making us worry, so she never told us when she was in pain. I’m sure that her biggest concern when she died, was the pain she would cause us.”
His body started to fade away.
“Foolish child…sometimes you need to share your pain.” he said, shaking his head. “It helps make it more bearable.”
He looked up at me, his body too hazy to make out.
“Oh Exalted Goddess…” He smiled at me.
“Trust your friends. Tell them your pain. Open up your heart.”
His entire body vanished, leaving the phantom of a smile in the air.
“And for goodness sake, stop being so fucking formal all the time.”
I opened my eyes with a jerk and gasped for air.
“Amy! Thank god you’re awake!” said Lily, embracing me.
“Damn. And here I was, thinking I’d finally gotten rid of you.” Runir said, smirking.
“Oi! Shut up!” Lily said, hitting Runir’s shoulder.
I got up.
We were sitting around a campfire, the village nowhere in sight.
Runir and Lily were arguing and Kai was lying next to the campfire while facing the stars, just like the night we’d first met.
A warm feeling rose up in my chest.
“Hey, shut up for a second will you? I’m tired.” I said, smiling at Runir and Lily’s blank faces.
Thanks old man. I can tell that things are going to be a hell of a lot more fun now…