Dust and Starlight
rating: +7+x

You squint through your goggles at your hand-drawn map. “Map” is a generous description for the collection of barely legible scribbles and sketchy lines you are currently struggling to comprehend. Your minimalist document consists of dots representing important locations and lines connecting them. Dots are accompanied by a concise written description, and the navigation lines are labeled only with approximate travel time and the exact compass bearing to get from one point to another.

You draw a line from a dot labeled “oasis 4” and jot down “SSE” after glancing at your compass. Glancing up, you catch another glimpse of the structure on the horizon. The air is unusually clear today, you think, even accounting for the nearby oasis. It’s too far away to make a time estimate, so you place your map back in your pack. After checking your goggles and clothing, making sure that there are no holes for dust to enter through, you set off once again.

Your cheerful whistling is muffled by the cloth around your face, but you don’t mind. It’s been a good few days. You have your supplies for clearing a room, plenty of food if you ration it carefully, and a handful of leftover trinkets to trade at the oasis in case this expedition turns out poorly. Always good to find a place so near an oasis. I have food for maybe two weeks, but only enough water for a few days. Here's to hoping there's a well or something to drink.

Assuming you can find a reliable source of water, you’ll be able to set up camp and loot nearby structures without having to worry about supplies for a while. You’ve heard legends about how some nomads can procure water from the desiccated, waist-high grass through obscure magic or strange tools, but you’ve long since decided that trekking back to an oasis every few days is far less effort than tracking down some semi-mythical water-wizard. However much you value your time alone, you can’t deny you enjoy the human presence at the oases. No matter how fulfilling wandering may be, there’s something irreplaceable about sharing a laugh with a few strangers every now and then. You think it’s a good balance to explore freely for a while before returning to those safe places with faces old and new.

After a few minutes, the structure is only a little closer. My, it's clear today. You can see for miles out here. Even without a nearby dust storm, the haze usually limits visibility to a fairly short walking distance. The house is…twenty minutes away, now? Close enough. You pull out your map and scrawl “3 hr 30 m” next to the travel line. You spare a moment to ponder the clarity of the skies. From what you’ve heard, the dust ruined much of the continent a little more than a generation before your birth. According to the stories, the dust storms overtook the land in a week, sparing only moderately-sized patches of forests and rivers. These mysteriously preserved havens became oases in a world dominated by rapidly eroding ruins and a resilient, previously unknown type of grass. The dust, however, was still present in the air of the oases, and had deadly long-term consequences. Anyone who was alive to know what the world used to look like succumbed to dust sickness only a decade after the calamity. The current methods of covering one’s whole body allow one to live for forty years, maybe a little longer, before their lungs finally fail. It is said that, before the dust, people used to live past their seventies, and their bodies would begin to fail in strange ways all on their own, even without exposure to toxins or disease. What in the world would someone even do with all that time? An extra three or four decades, able to live and roam anywhere without worrying about dust? Hell, I can't even stay in one place for two months. The structure now appears to be two outlines, one significantly smaller than the other. It would be nice to live longer, I suppose. You can make out the slant of what is hopefully an intact roof. Ah well. The time I've got is plenty enough.

You arrive at your destination. The house is low and small, but you don’t dwell on that. Your eyes fall on a well, and you break into a grin. Before you walk in the front door, you know this will be a good spot to set up camp. There are a few rooms inside. You carefully inspect the walls and windows for the smallest imperfections that the dust might find its way through. It’s methodical, slow, and satisfying. You’ve come to appreciate your well-practiced motions, sliding gloved hands along walls, peering closely at every nook and cranny. You pull up a chair, and relax for a moment. This one should do. One last check.

You reach into your bag, removing a charred glove and a sheet of paper. Any spell requires a sacrifice to work, an offering of something subjectively valuable to the spellcaster. It can be anything - objects, memories, keepsakes, even parts of one’s own body. You’ve heard tall tales of people who could supposedly sacrifice their good luck. You’ve found that your curiosity makes a very specific group of objects into potent offerings: your spells are fueled by the notes of other people. Specifically, notes that you have not yet read and were discarded by strangers long since gone. They fascinate you, everything from to-do lists to letters to personal confessions. Diaries are the best, each page filled with stories you long to read. But if you read them, they lose all that value. The story becomes known, the mystery is lost, and the object becomes nothing more than a reminder of information that is stored inside your head. So you collect these pages and notes and scraps of paper but resist the urge to read them. That curiosity is never sated, the value of potential knowledge instead serving as fuel for your small spells.

You cover your right glove with the charred one and pick up the crumpled paper. It’s a to-do list you found in a house a few weeks ago. You’ve found that taking a peek at a few words makes these messages all the more enticing. You close your eyes to concentrate and focus on how much you want to read what the note says. After a moment, a sudden warmth in your right hand indicates your success. Excellent. Opening your eyes, you see that the paper is enveloped in a ball of fire, serving as both magical sacrifice and mundane kindling. The room fills with smoke as you set the smoldering remains to the side and lay on your back. Peering through the goggles, you can make out small traces of movement in the smoke, hinting at tiny gaps in the wall you failed to notice on your first inspection. The dust can find its way through the smallest of gaps, ruining the lungs of those careless enough to let their guard down in these unforgiving wastes.

You note the places where the fumes are disturbed, and exit the room. As you observe the exterior walls, leaving pencil marks where the smoke leaks out, you recall how you learned to properly check a room. When you were younger, and more reckless, you hadn’t even considered that walls might have holes your eyes couldn’t find with careful inspection. The day before you first set out into the wilderness, that warning was provided in the form of a gut-wrenching cautionary tale told by a pale, sickly individual who couldn’t have been five years older than you were at the time. They had foolishly sealed all the gaps they could see in a ruined house and then went to sleep without a care in the world while a dust storm raged in the night. They awoke to a fine layer of dust on their unprotected body and the horrifying knowledge they had irreversibly damaged their lungs and skin.

A shudder passes through your body as you finish double-checking the walls. Rest in peace, man. The person died only a few months after that story, coughing up blood through cracked lips as their lungs and skin succumbed to the present consequences of their past carelessness. As you start sealing the holes with fabric, wood, and nails from your pack, you wonder how many times you’ve gone through these same actions. Burning notes you will never read, written by people dead before you were born, so you can watch smoke swirl in houses that no one will ever live in again. All fueled by your insatiable, fiery curiosity to explore and to know. You shut the door, and seal the frame. The room is not airtight, so you can breathe, but no dust will pass through your cloth filters that you have hammered into place.

Another day well spent. Wonder where I'll go tomorrow. You allow yourself to relax in your little haven, removing the fabric from your head, setting your goggles and tools, shrugging off your pack as night begins to fall.

You notice how quiet it is as you drift off, and begin to dream.

A child in a blindingly green field points at the night sky. They are surrounded by a variety of plants, of every shape and size, all colored a green so vibrant it appears to glow. There are no flowers in the lush field. It is only populated by verdant leaves and branches and blades of grass. The child continues to point upwards. They are mouthing words, but they cannot be heard.

You awake with a start. Something feels wrong, but you can’t determine what. You pay yourself down, then the floor. No dust. You breathe a sigh of relief, and then notice the dead silence afterwards. Not a hint of noise, even if you press your ear to the wall. Silence is an anomaly in the wastelands, for the winds blow day or night. Curiosity quickly overpowers weariness, and you prepare to exit the room.

You open the door, tread quietly through the house, and exit out the front.

The sky is impossibly clear. The horizon is a clear line rather than a blur. You smile, and look down so as to save the surprise. You think a moment before turning, grabbing the side of the roof and hauling yourself up. Your left leg comes up, and you roll over the edge onto your back, staring upwards.

Your jaw falls open beneath the cloth. There are an uncountable number of stars in the sky. The thought that you might be hallucinating crosses your mind briefly, and you shove it aside to dwell on the awe instead. The air is absolutely still. You’ve never seen it this clear, even in the center of the largest oasis. The stars look close enough to touch. You reach out your left hand, the glove a black silhouette blotting out the tiny lights. In your astonishment, you have forgotten your precarious position on the very edge of the house. You move to set your arm at your side to push yourself up, but your hand goes straight down past the edge of the roof, taking the rest of your body with it.

You roll unceremoniously from the roof, landing hard on your back.

The impact forces the air from your lungs in a way you’ve never felt before and you try to take a breath and it doesn’t work. And then you realize you can’t breathe and you’re gasping over and over and you can’t breathe and you try to take a deep breath and it still doesn’t work and the starlight shines coldly down on you as you desperately gasp for air and wonder if this is the end, if you somehow inhaled a lethal quantity of dust in your sleep, and then it starts to get easier to breathe. The panic starts to fade. You breathe in, breathe out, roll over, get to your knees. In. Out. You're alive.

You contemplate the skies above. Never before have you experienced such visceral panic. Not from hunger, nor thirst, nor dust. You've been caught unprepared at times, but you've never really had to fear for your life. You recall an idiom that seems to describe that sensation - something about the wind being knocked out of a person. Ironic, seeing as the air is completely still right now. It seems distantly comedic that the scariest experience in your life was falling off a roof just a little taller than you. You smile, a little.

The stars are so beautiful.

You stand up, take a long, deep breath, and collapse again.

This time you’re laughing.

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