“Oh, what am I doing?” Azure whispered to herself.
Abruptly, the crowd of people that surrounded Azure gave a wide berth to a group of teenagers. From the way they spoke and the excruciating detail and craftsmanship of their clothing, they seemed to be from… the higher folk in the desert lands. The two girls in the group wore colorful silk tops that matched the bright colors that swathed the marketplace’s stalls. Barely a streak of muck or dirt showed on their tanned faces. They bickered loudly over a large diamond-encrusted necklace as the frenzied merchant tried to separate them.
Azure swallowed down the bitterness that rose in her throat. Here there were people fighting over the simplest issues, only worrying about how expensive the things they purchase are, when there were people dying from the Desert’s Wrath and fighting over life and death.
“Typical,” Azure exclaimed. “Fighting over a piece of jewelry while death and disease are elsewhere.”
She blew a strand of hair from her face, thinking sickeningly about her own family and their suffering from the Desert’s Wrath. She spotted a water stand near the bickering girls, and suddenly she felt how dry and parched her throat had been. Perhaps I have a few coins to spare to get water, Azure thought.
“Come on,” Azure urged. “We can spare getting a water supply before we head out.”
Erix shifted uneasily in his place as Azure gave him an impatient glance over her shoulder. His eyes continued to squint at the group of kids in the center of the market. Azure swiftly made her way ahead of Erix, when the apparent leader of the teenager group, a tall boy with sleek, dark hair and a crooked nose, waved his two arms up in the air.
His face lit with recognition as he shouted, “Hey Erix!” His voice reverberated along the market shops.
Erix stopped mid-step, a few feet behind Azure. His face fell, and he slowly began to back away. Azure’s eyes shifted from the boy and Erix nervously, creasing her brow. Immediately, the guy wrapped his arm around Erix’s shoulders like they were longtime friends. He tassled Erix’s already messy hair.
“I missed you, little guy!” he exclaimed, despite Erix being an inch taller than him. “Didn’t think you’d actually go on that silly dare we gave you!”
Azure knew Erix had tried to steal her ruby when they met, and stepping away from the two boys, she wondered if they were accomplices. She’d only met Erix last night when they’d both made the agreement to help each other find the willow tree. Azure was still wary of him.
Erix pulled away, but not before the guy snatched his map from his pocket. Erix angrily went to grab it back, but the guy held it high above his head, throwing it to his friend.
“You said something’s been stolen from you alright, Rowlen,” the boy said to the guy next to him. “This it?”
The second guy shrugged. “Nope, but finders keepers, eh?” He went to put the precious desert map in his trouser pocket.
Azure stepped up in front of Erix to face the leader of the group.
“It’s ours,” she said defiantly, craning her neck upwards to meet his eyes. “I’d like you to give it back.”
The boy laughed and raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, my lady.” He bowed sarcastically. “But it’s ours now. Besides, do you really trust this guy to take you to the willow tree? If it even exists, you’re going to die anyway, reaching it. I’m doing you a favor by sparing you the trouble of dealing with him.”
Azure narrowed her eyes, her eyes still glued on the map that peeked tauntingly out of Rowlen’s pocket. She knew well enough that some people only searched for the tree to gain glory, and she was quickly running out of her time, and patience.
“You think he — ” The boy pointed at Erix. “ — is true to his word? Ha! Well I’ll tell you what I know of Erix of Ragnarox.” The boy spat.
“Kwan, that’s enough,” Erix said dangerously.
“Just leave him alone! I don’t care what you think of him,” Azure snapped back. She glanced nervously behind her shoulder. The exit from the marketplace was too far to steal back the map and get away from these people. Of course, she had to be dragged along into Erix’s problems. “Just give me the stupid map… now.”
“Actually for your information,” the boy replied, “Erix wouldn’t even have helped you or known anything about this map without my help. He didn’t even know about the legend itself! I’m the one who dared him to find that tree when we met back in Ragnarox and led him to the place where he could most likely find the map. All that’s left for him to do is to find it and cut it down. Then you’ll be accepted by us, right pal?” Kwan continued.
Erix tensed his shoulders and his fists. “Shut up, Kwan!” he exclaimed stiffly.
Kwan ignored him. He turned back to Azure. “Still don’t believe me, eh? Just see the look on his face then!” He and his friends laughed.
Azure stood still. She opened her mouth, yet no words came out. She didn’t know how to make her words come out. She gritted her teeth. She’d just run off with the map and leave. The bitter feeling in her mouth returned. Erix would cut down a tree that had the cure to the worst disease in the desert, something that has been surviving in the desert for so long, just to prove himself to these ignorant people.
With a cry of anger, Azure grabbed the map from Rowlen with such force that he fell over a cart of caged chickens, and ended up landing straight in a pile of donkey droppings. The group of kids suddenly stopped laughing as Rowlen glowered, his eyes on Azure. Azure’s instinct took over. She had one thing on her mind now.
With that, Azure sprinted away, pushing the crowd despite people’s cries of annoyance. In her haste, she knocked down merchant stalls, sent baskets of market goods flying, while the group of teenagers took off in pursuit. Dust clouds flew in front of her face, blocking her view. Kwan was right on her tail, merely a few feet away. The edge of the marketplace was still out of reach. Azure had no idea where Erix was, nor did she care. She wanted to run, far away from everyone and everything, off into the middle of the desert where no one would lie to her for their own reasons.
“Azure, watch out!” Erix was a bit ahead of her just near the barren, golden landscape of the desert. Azure’s ears perked as she turned, her face inches from the furious hooves of a horse, its rider frantically pulling on the reigns.
“Aahh!” both Azure and the rider screamed.
Azure swung her head down and rolled out of the way, hitting the side of a crumbling building. Clutching her aching head, Kwan appeared over a pile of rubble. He loomed over her and reached his arm out, grabbing the other end of the map.
“You’re not getting away, you lowly wretch! It’s time you learned your place in the world.”
People stopped by as they watched Kwan and Azure. Neither one of them was about ready to let go. Azure grabbed the edge of the paper till her knuckles went white. Her arms shook from the effort to hold on. The crowd murmured and whispered, chickens clucked while the donkeys brayed loudly, Erix shouting out for Azure. The image of the willow tree on the map blinked up at Azure in the sunlight. The beautiful willow tree that Azure yearned to find. The one that would bring her back to her former life.
Azure’s head was about ready to burst as tears of frustration pricked at her eyes. From the distance she could see the silhouettes of the others making their way through the market. Freedom was too close to let go, when Azure was nearly at the desert. Sweat slipped down the sides of her face as she bared her teeth. The crumbling building next to her continued to crack faster and faster, breaking apart the dried, dull yellow stone. Rocks and stones began to fall as the building’s bottom began to deteriorate.
Everything happened too fast.
In a shout of frustration, Azure tugged with all her might, pushing Kwan backwards onto the dirty road, freeing the map from his clutches. Her hand hit the building, and like a rippling effect it continued to crack apart at a mad pace until it reached everywhere, up to the top of it and beneath Azure and Kwan’s feet. Azure’s mind was racing. She didn’t know what she was doing, yet her mind had no control over her movements. Her hands swung upward and to the side. The right side of the building finally collapsed.
A huge dirt cloud blasted in Azure’s face. Azure coughed in the flecks of debris that now swarmed the air, engulfing her lungs and throat.
People cried out in shock, and Azure could barely hear the faint warbling sound of Kwan and his groups voices.
“She’s cursed!” came their cry, along with the scared agreements of the crowd.
Azure had heard enough, and this time she had no retaliation to say back. Words had completely left her. Azure’s clothing was ridden with dust and dirt. Her hair was a wretched mess, just like Kwan had said. Breaths came in quick, constricted gasps. The map was still clutched in Azure’s fist, yet the view of the market was fully blocked with all of the fallen debris and wreckage. All that was left to see was the glittering sand and the one lone stray fox in the distance. The sun glared down on Azure as she kneeled down, resting her head heavily against a rock face.
What have I done? she thought to herself, scared of looking at her own hands. She shot a quick, narrowed glance at Erix, whose face had gone pale. He didn’t back away or run from her however.
“W-w-what did you — ” he shakily began.
“I don’t know what I did, okay?!” Azure shouted, louder than she expected. “I don’t know! But this is all your fault! Of course, you care more about being ‘accepted’ by people that will never really be your friends, don’t you? You’re just like everyone else. Just as bland and just as selfish and self-involved.”
Erix didn’t say anything. He looked at his torn shoes.
“Of course you don’t have anything to say, huh?!” Azure exclaimed. She thought he would have at least said something, anything, even the most stupid excuse to his actions would have worked. “Aargh, I hate you! I hate everything. I hate your stupid ‘friends.’ I hate myself!” Azure punched the eroded rock, clutching her hand in pain. She couldn’t bear to look at Erix anymore. “Good luck getting accepted,” she said quietly, turning her back to Erix.
With that, Azure ran. She didn’t care how far she went or where she was going at the moment, but she needed to leave. She ran and ran, her feet flying before her eyes, the entire landscape a blur to her. Only when the sun began to slowly descend into the crimson sky did Azure stop. Splat. Azure looked down. A single tear hit the grainy desert sand, before absorbing into nothingness.
Hurriedly, Azure wiped her tears with the back of her hand, streaking dust and mud across her left cheek. She looked around. No sign of life was in sight. Azure had gone right back to stage one in her quest for the willow tree, alone and helpless as daylight fell through her grasp once again. Not even the map could comfort her now.
Azure slumped her way over to an array of rocks that bordered a series of towering sand dunes, their sloping hills shining deep orange in the fading sunlight. A skull rested at the base of one of them, slowly crumbling to dust. Wait a second, Azure thought to herself. With a shaking hand, she lifted up the map. Skull Man’s Dunes was drawn onto it, shielding the place of the willow tree that barely anyone dared to pass. Four sloping dunes were drawn in shining ink, identical to the ones that stood menacingly before Azure.
Azure’s knees sagged, and she clutched her chest, her heart rapidly beating, sinking lower into the ground.
“Oh no. Oh no no no no no no!” she cried out to no one. “I have to get out of here,” Azure squeaked. She tried keeping her composure, but her movements were clumsy and she struggled to stand. She had to keep going. The donkey. Azure tugged at her hair in anger. “Stupid Azure!” Azure exclaimed. “How could you forget about what you needed most to reach the tree?!” Azure imagined Erix, happily riding on that donkey, making his way across Skull Man’s Dunes without a care in the world, free and safe from any possible harm.
“Arghhhh!” Azure shouted, her voice breaking.
She began to run, hoping she hadn’t been in that treacherous area for too long. Abruptly, the ground shook, and Azure’s legs buckled. She fell face flat in the sand. Turning her head around, Azure’s eyes bulged, her mouth agape, unable to make a sound or a movement.
The dunes had been awakened.
A vast cloud of golden sand and speckles of dust rumbled in Azure’s direction. It burst through the desert, devouring everything in its path greedily. The wind shrieked and howled in Azure’s ears as she covered her hands over her head. Spumes of dust and dirt rose above Azure, coating her in a thick layer of sand and grime.
Azure could barely see through the haze of dull yellow grains of sand that flecked at her stinging eyes and skin and lips. She shouted out desperately for help, yet the moment her mouth moved it was engulfed in dust. Azure, closing her eyes shut, crawled along the ground, grappling her way through the monstrous domes of sand that blotted out any source of light. The wind grew louder, crying in agony as Azure shouted along with it. Her hand managed to find the rough edge of an object, and she squeezed her fist around it like a lifeline.
It crumbled to dust in Azure’s hands, relenting to the storm. “Stupid power!” Azure managed, clutching her aching hand, wiping her mouth from all of the grainy sand that dotted it. It did nothing as the storm raged on, enveloping Azure’s nostrils and her mouth once again, not letting down.
Dust and bits of rock caked Azure’s face and clothes. She lay there, crouched on the floor, coughing out dirt. Her hands were cut up raw from the million bits of sand that flew past her skin. Another wave of sand flew into Azure, and upon the impact, Azure was sent flying across the desert, scabbing her knees on the rough desert plains, not knowing where she was or what day it was. Her throat begged for water, yet all it got was more dirt and speckles of rock.
After shouting for help repeatedly, Azure stopped her struggling. “Help,” she said hoarsely, before letting go to the storm.
Clutching her torn and rugged satchel that was miraculously still there, Azure prayed that it would end. She didn’t care about the willow tree anymore. It was hopeless. She had no one left by now. She was no one. Her family was sick, and she had trusted the wrong people. She failed.
Azure thought for a moment she heard her name beyond the howling sound of the ghastly wind. Images of her family, her parents, and her siblings flew through Azure’s mind. The smell of fresh warm baked bread her mother would always make every Saturday morning, her father’s low, rumbling voice that would resonate through the house when he was in an elated mood, as well as her little twin brothers’ shrieks of laughter as they’d play outside, sending dust clouds in the air as they chased after one another.
“I’m sorry,” Azure finally spoke, her eyes shut tight, her ears ringing from the sound of the wind.
Azure breathed heavily, every bone in her body smarting and aching. She begged repeatedly for everything to be over, for everything around her to just end. Azure’s voice grew so loud in her head as she screamed for everything to stop that she couldn’t hear the overbearing sound of someone calling out.
Azure’s eyes barely opened, and as she squinted through the golden haze, she could make out a frail silhouette. Her hands left her ears and the ringing subsided, followed by a clear sharp voice. “Azure!”
Weakly, Azure looked up. An arm reached out, and without knowing who or what that thing had been, with her last ounce of strength, Azure reached out her own hand. She got hoisted up onto what seemed to be a stout gray animal that clomped hurriedly across the dunes. An animal that looked just like a donkey. The person finally turned, only his eyes visible, warm dark eyes that were filled with concern. Erix, Azure thought. As they made it to where the dust and sand had lessened, Azure could finally take a full breath. She nearly sobbed with relief. The one person who’d originally wanted to cut the tree was here.
The sand still loomed above them, and not saying a word, the two bolted off to the nearest border of rocks, where a small opening revealed a stone cave. Just as the wind pushed the sand furiously closer, they leaped through the opening.
“Come on, we have to close the opening!” Erix finally said, struggling to push a giant boulder at the back of the cave.
Azure rubbed her sore arms, barely able to push or move anything. She looked down at her hands. The scene at the marketplace flashed before her eyes, Kwan and his group chasing her, and the cracks in the old building, spreading out like a ripple. Maybe I don’t only have to cause things to crumble. With a shaky breath, Azure thrust out her hand willing herself to move the boulder. Come on, please! I don’t have any idea how my hands have been doing any of this, but you need to move now!
Closing her eyes, Azure felt a gush of air and a final crash. She snapped them open, praying she hadn’t accidentally crushed Erix with a boulder or something. The giant rock now lay on its side at the entrance to the cave, and the world was drenched in darkness except for a tiny sliver of sunlight from the ceiling of the cave.
Azure panted heavily, then broke into nervous laughter that instantly grew louder. She must have looked delirious. “Ha! I did it! I moved a boulder, Erix! A boulder!! With my bare hands!” Azure turned, Erix still staring straight at the blocked entryway.
“Uh huh… ” he said weakly. “So this is… normal now?” He turned to Azure, his hair and clothes caked with a layer of sand, he grasped the leash of the old donkey as though it was his lifeline.
Azure looked down, finally calming down. “I honestly don’t know, Erix, ever since being in that marketplace… I just felt so furious at that moment, trying to get hold of the map, I could barely even think straight! And the next moment I destroyed that building. Imagine if there had been people in there!” She slid down against the cool cave wall.
Erix crouched down beside her. “But there wasn’t. That building was ancient after all. It would have eventually been taken down.”
“You saved me after our, well, you know… argument. Why?” Azure spoke again after a still silence, trying to change the subject.
Erix fiddled with his fingers. “W-well, you did stand up for me back there in the market. No one’s done that for me before.”
“That kid was being a brat anyways,” Azure said finally.
Erix chuckled. Erix might have been selfish at hiding his motivations, but after seeing him save her, perhaps, he could be trusted.
“Look, whatever Kwan said you did… about being dared to take the map and cut down the tree and all that was wrong, and unjust of you… ” Azure took a deep breath before continuing. “But Skull Man’s Dunes, it isn’t a one man journey. To be honest, I never imagined I’d ever say this yet… I need your help, Erix. We both need each other’s help if we hope to make it out of here successfully… and alive as well. Perhaps the reason I even have this new ability is to somehow help us reach the willow tree.”
Azure finally turned to Erix, and she caught a flicker of determination in his eyes. “Well, what are we waiting for?” He flashed a mischievous grin. “You think you can find a way to move that rock again?”
Azure nodded, stiffening her shoulders. “I-I think so.”
Together, Azure and Erix reached the large boulder that blocked the cave entryway. The sound of the howling wind had diminished to a faint whisper as the storm began to drift away gradually. Here goes nothing, Azure thought to herself. Steadying her shaky breaths, Azure pressed her palm against the rockface. Instantly, it grew warmer by the second, and the warmth spread all the way up Azure’s arm. Still concentrating, she used all her will to cause the rock to move. Slowly, Azure’s tense arm relaxed as the warmth from the rock filled her. The surface of the rock left her fingers, and when she opened her eyes, the rock had been pushed away, revealing the fading orange light of day.
Erix, giving the boulder one final push, clapped his hands happily, still heavily ridden with dust. Wiping sweat from his brow he glanced at Azure.
“I suppose I could get used to this.” Azure rolled her eyes as they stumbled their way onto the donkeys back once again.
They were still in dangerous territory. The thought of the violent storm was still clear in Azure’s mind. The map had still miraculously survived, and it lay clutched in Azure’s fist. They’d been in Skull Man’s dunes for a while.
“We have to be getting closer,” Azure began, furrowing her eyebrows as she studied the map.
“Let’s hope we find it before we can’t see anything at all.” Erix, grabbing a hold of the reigns on the donkey’s saddle, nodded towards the tiny faint sliver of light in the corner of the sky. The sun was setting fast, and already stars began to pop up in the sky. “You know,” Erix continued, “we never got to name him.”
“Who exactly?” Azure began slowly, confused.
“The donkey, obviously. Got any ideas for names? How about… ” Erix scratched his head as though in deep thought. “Erix Jr. maybe?”
Azure crossed her arms, giving him an incredulous look. “The fate of an entire village is at stake, and you are worrying about naming our donkey at the moment?” Erix merely smiled in reply. “Well, looks like it shouldn’t be at stake anymore.” They suddenly stopped, and Azure’s eyes grew wide, a grin breaking across her face.
The willow tree towered above them, wide burly branches reaching to far ends, with broad leaves in deep golds and greens. Its roots extended deep below the sand beneath it, and although its bark was chipped and cracked, it was alive, surviving even in the most harsh circumstances. The shriek of a hawk pierced Azure’s ears, and a chip of the tree’s bark fell before Azure. Upon closer inspection, it looked blackened and… dead almost.
With a sick feeling rising in her mouth, Azure immediately hopped off of the donkey, rushing to the tree, Erix right in her wake. As she got closer, Azure realized how weakly the leaves flittered in the wind, how the branches groaned under the weight they had to hold, and how the mahogany-colored bark was fading into a deathly black color.
Erix stood next to Azure, his eyes twice their normal size as he looked about the tree in utter shock. “I-is is it… dead?” he spoke faintly.
Azure gently reached out her hand to the tree. She pressed her forehead against it. No. She repeated to herself over and over. I couldn’t have come all this way for nothing. No! Tears began pricking Azure’s eyes and slowly began to streak down her cheeks, yet she didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. “No! It can’t be! It’s not dead!” Azure hit her fist against the ground, not gaining the strength to use any of her powers. Azure released her hand from its fist, staring at the center of it, wishing somehow a miracle would occur and her hand would be able to heal the tree.
A small, papery object flew into Azure’s open hand, a green leaf. Azure looked up at the tree, her heart thundering in her chest.
“It’s alive,” she cried. “It has to be. Its leaves are still not blackened!” Azure stood up abruptly, her mind whirring. “It’s not dead yet. It’s just been… ”
“Poisoned?” a gravelly voice spoke from a few feet away.
Azure’s head snapped to the side, clutching her leather bag tightly.
“No need to be afraid… ” the voice continued smoothly. “I’ve been expecting someone to arrive quite soon.” A figure emerged from around the tree. He was lean and tall with a narrow tan face and crooked nose, his dark eyes glinting mysteriously. His lips curled into a thin, sly smile. “Hexron’s the name,” he said calmly, as though he was in any normal conversation. “So the Desert’s Wrath. I heard it’s been spreading quickly, hasn’t it? It’s a pity how ignorant people can be when it comes to finding clear solutions to their problems. By then I’d already poisoned this pitiful tree. It’s already gotten terribly old, hasn’t it? It’s grown old and tired from the disease and terrible actions of humans it has had to fix.” Hexron chuckled slightly at himself, as Erix and Azure’s mouths hung open in shock.