Memories Of The Past
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The boy was very tired, and the sun was very hot.

It was known that the same sun beat down in his homeland as it did anywhere else, but the boy had begun to question the truth of that claim. Surely no sun as oppressive, as brutal, as callously indifferent could exist as the one that now sought to reduce him to ashes. He stopped for a while, to wipe his brow, and quench his thirst with the little that remained in his canteen.

So little. Perhaps not enough.

Nonetheless, he pressed onward, defiant to the ever-scorching rays of the cruel solar winds above. What else could he do but keep going?

And so he did. Step by step, across the endless desert wastes of a land whose very name had been lost to the dunes. Marching onward, as he had done for countless days and nights, in search of the only land that would give him the peace he sought.

After another countless stretch of days, when the boy’s feet were naught else but blister-covered ruins, he stumbled upon that which he had least expected to find.

Another wanderer.

This wanderer was unlike him, however. Where the boy stood tall, proud, and strong, despite the travails of his journey, the stranger was stoop-backed, quiet, and decrepit. Every inch of the boy betrayed his outsider ways, but the stranger was so still and so unassuming that the boy had mistaken him for a particularly gnarled tree from a distance. In short, the boy was a boy, while this stranger was old beyond measure.

As the boy grew closer to his unexpected acquaintance, cracked lips split open to reveal a toothless, sore-ridden, gum-lined smile. The boy, unsure of the way forward for once, paused in his endless strides. Emanating from the core of the stranger came a voice so soft, so withered that the boy craned his neck to listen.

“Outlander, outlander. From where do you come?”

The boy hesitated, but leaned on his walking stick, uncowed by the old man’s challenge.

“From beyond the desert, uncle.”

”Outlander, outlander. You are far from home.”

”Yes, uncle, but I am not without purpose.”

”Oh yes, yes, outlander. You are indeed. You seek Yinxiang, do you not?”

The boy froze, gripping the weathered leather of his walking stick all the tighter for it. The stranger cackled, a hoarse rumble of a sound that echoed from the desert itself.

”Be not worried, outlander. You are but one of many. Many have come to this place looking for that which you seek. I will not stand in the way of your journey….but yet, you may wish to hear what I have to say.”

The boy paused, once again wiping a trail of dusty sweat from his sun-beaten brow. He unstoppered his canteen and carefully drank but a morsel of the precious cargo within, so scarce and so rich. He then carefully selected a large rock, and sat himself down on it, placing his walking stick across his cross-legged lap, a warning and an invitation in one.

”Say your mind, uncle. I am in no great rush.”

The wheezing cackle of a laugh that slithered from the tongue of the stranger grated on the ears of the boy, but he saved himself from little more than the lightest flinch. The stranger mirrored the boy’s pose on a stone of his own, but leaned forward, tracing a line in the sand. At first, his finger trembled with the sighing creaks of old age, but slowly he gained surety, carving out a pattern of intricate swirls and loops.

”Do you know what you are looking at, outlander?”

”No, uncle.”

”It is the name Yinxiang, written in the old language. A dead language, for a dead people. The ones who built the city are no longer with us, and even their children’s children have left this land for good. Such was the nature of a city like Yinxiang, the land of a thousand exiles and lost souls from across time and space. It drew the runaways, waifs, and foundlings of the world like flies to honey, and stuck them just as swiftly.”

”You do not speak of the city fondly, uncle.”

”Yes, outlander, for I speak with the words of one who has seen its promises and grandeur firsthand.”

The boy stirred himself, leaning in closer, this time excitedly.

”You have been there? Can you show me the way?”

The stranger chuckled, wagging a desiccated finger.

”Patience, outlander. Listen to my tale first.

”Yinxiang was a city like none other. A lonely, wayward beacon for those who had nothing else; a place where people came to get lost, forgotten, and brushed aside. Long ago, I arrived in the city to do all of the above.”

”I was young then, so strong, so bright. Flush with the arrogance of youth and the surfeit of time known only to those who have nothing to lose yet. Still convinced of the things that I would do, and the power that I held in my hands. Yinxiang beckoned to me, with its siren call of pleasures, promise, and plentitude too irresistible to decline. I drank it in like a man dying of thirst, swallowing gulps of the city without even realizing what I was doing. Bit by bit, I began to lose myself, subsumed into the heaving mass of a place that devoured souls such as myself. I came to know the place as not a paradise of future ambitions but a void where people simply came to waste away.”

”It was there that I found her. She, who became the passion and the poison of my life. A native of the city, one who had been born in the chaos and the filth, yet who grew up untouched by it. She was….remarkable. Even as the city began to wear me down, strip me of what had driven me, and leave naught behind but an empty shell, she stood tall, proud, and strong. She would not be cowed by what the city had done."

"Countless people live their whole lives pretending to be people who they are not, running away from the ever-present shadow of their actual selves. Yinxiang appealed most to worms such as these, such as myself. And yet…she was different. She had the courage to look destiny itself in the eye, and spit in its face with nary a second thought."

"She was strong like that."

"Much stronger than I ever was."

"For a while after that, I was strong again. I drew courage from her convictions, and the fortitude to stand up to Yinxiang, to continue forward. I was a young man again, looking for the trail of a city that had once given me such hope. It was beautiful. It was intoxicating. It was fleeting."

"I do not know what drew her to me, what took her to take pity on my broken form. Perhaps it was a cruel twist of fate, the city having its last laugh as it threw me a bone just to watch me pine after it when it was taken away. Perhaps she was simply kinder than she had any right to be. Perhaps it was simply happenstance, just the random tides of chaos breaking against my shores for once. At any rate, it came to pass that I squandered the gift that I had been given."

"Imagine a rock on the beach. It stands straight, proud, stoically indifferent to the constant assault of the waves against its perch. Haughtily, it resists their efforts, defying nature itself to stand tall. Yet, even the rock must eventually yield to the onset of time, and before long, the waves will claim it, pulling it beneath the water piece by piece, until only the barest remnant of what once seemed so strong remains as but an imprint in the sand. We tried our best to fight the forces of Yinxiang, but in time, we broke promises to each other, and made new ones, only to break them again. Bit by bit, the city stole the last shard of me that continued to wriggle onwards. I was simply not strong like her."

"In the end, Yinxiang promises much, outlander, but beware its poisoned chalice, a cornucopia of plenty with a rotten core. Do not heed the call that it gives you, for all that you find will turn to ash in your mouth. It may not come swiftly, but with the inevitability of the sun's passage, the city will break you. Some things are best left forgotten."

The old man bowed his head at the conclusion of his story, deep in thought. For some time, the two wanderers sat there in silence, as the sun continued on its passage overhead. After a time, the young wanderer stood up, and brushed the sand off his lap.

"I thank you for your story, uncle. But it is best that I am on my way."

The old wanderer gave no inclination that he had heard, but remained in his penitent repose, once again statuesque in his silence. And yet, as the boy passed by him, he raised his head to watch the stranger continue on his path across the desert for a time. Still strong. Still hopeful. The cries of the forgotten city were still strong in his ears, no doubt, and the whispers of its rewards were as good of a balm as any.

The old wanderer could not help but shed a single dry tear for his counterpart as he departed, knowing the fate that awaited. The boy was but one of many. In time, he would learn. A heavy lesson, a dear one, but a vital one nonetheless.

The city stood undefeated.

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