Oasis of the Miraji
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Every step forward was a plea for death. His footprints in the sand echoed the sentiment, like disciples chanting their cleric's mantra in holy communion. The wind dissolved his footprints, cut at the man's robes, and whipped at his resolve. He came to despair the counting of the days, walking all through the morning, evening, and night alike. When he could walk no longer, he collapsed to his knees.

“Gods,” he whispered through dry, cracked lips. His breath wheezed out between words in a hiss, like a desert snake tasting the air. “Allow me to enter your Kingdoms. Ra'ad, I would love you the most, you and your vast archipelago: a domain of endless oceans.” The man smiled, beset either by spiritual serenity or the delirium of exposure. He fell further, shoulders digging into the sand, making a home there. Vultures circled overhead. The sun beamed down at him, so relentless in its power it had driven Ra'ad from this land long ago.

The man tugged at the medallion at his neck. Its emblem mirrored the sky above, symbolizing the sun and its scavenger heralds. “Al-Dram, Life-giver, though you have surely killed me, I would even love you and your Kingdom. Send your minions to guide me in death. I welcome it.” Grasping the medallion reminded the man of praying for safe passage, as he always did before crossing the desert.

His vision blurred and dissolved to black, though the vultures did not come. Instead of a Kingdom of Heaven, when his eyes focused he found a spindly tree had sprouted before him. He lay in the shade of its thin but far-reaching branches, the green foliage the only dose of color he'd received in ages.

“What measure of a man is this, whose desperation brings oasis from nothing?” Said in a trill voice by a person he could not see. The man could not even deem the voice feminine or masculine. He summoned strength from a renewed resolve and picked himself up from the ground, which he noticed had transformed into a pristine white stone instead of the harsh grain of desert-blown sand.

Around him sprouted many more of the strange desert trees, squat-looking things like stretched out bushes. Further along the path he had been walking, an ornate fountain stood over what must've been a natural spring. He ran to it, forgetting the voice, and reached down into the water.

He felt not a drop of moisture as the liquid retreated from his every movement.

“Oh, no, “ chided the voice, now coming from behind him. “First, we must bargain.” The man turned to the voice and could finally glimpse its material owner. The figure stood taller than the man, and its tanned skin seemed darker in the shade. It wore dark robes, and the air around it rippled to the effect of obscuring any defining features. “You were a merchant, yes?”

The man would've wept if he'd been able to make tears. “I have nothing to trade.” He had made peace with death, only to be given a glimmer of hope, which was quickly fading into renewed despair. “Either save me or kill me quickly, Al-Dram.”

“You think me the Sun?” The figure might've smirked.

The dying merchant shrugged. “Whether Al-Dram or Ra'ad or another, It matters not. The bandits on the Caliph's Road sentenced me to death or salvation, and you appear the judge.” The man began pacing between the fountain and the figure.

“How strange, to you I am no one, and yet the only one that matters.” The figure never stepped from the shade, even when the man approached so closely as to be impolite. “All I need from you is permission.”

The man stopped pacing. “Permission to what?”

“Give you what you want.”

“If you give me water, I will grant whatever desire that is within my power to give.”

The man gasped as moist tendrils wrapped around his wrists and ankles. With a shout, he was dragged into the fountain.

Several seconds later, he broke the surface, bobbing in the water like spilled fruit. His laughs echoed through the oasis. “Oh, I am alive!” He swam to the edge of the uncharacteristically deep fountain and faced the figure. “How can I thank you?”

The figure beckoned from the shade, hand dipping into the sunlight with each movement. Its skin rippled and swam, slightly translucent. “More. Tell me more.”

The man beamed. “Surely you are too generous a deity!”

The figure only mirrored the man's smile.

“Very well…” The man leaned back and peddled through the water. “Show me the path across the desert?”

With a twirl of the spectral figure's finger, sand blew away in gusts, revealing a straight line of white stone cobbles leading Southwest.

The man sunk further into the fountain, until only his face tread above the waterline. The figure stepped completely from the shadows, more solid now than before. Instead of simply tanned, its skin now almost glowed orange, and ringlets of fire swam up its arms like campfire logs. “And what else, my lost merchant? For your suffering, I will grant you one more wish.”

“Promise that I will be reunited with my family.” Images of a young girl with dark hair and a pale foreign woman danced around the man's face. Further from these images, a host of people reflected in the water's surface, all vaguely resembling the merchant at the center.

The figure clapped once and the man sank, never to feel the sun's kiss again. First, the images dissolved, and then the oasis itself. The trees dug back into the earth like moles, and the stonework crumpled and browned into a small dune of sand.

It had been days since we held up the merchant's caravan. Patrols lessened along the Caliph's Road while the Caliph himself was abroad. It took time for this news to travel, time the scoundrels of the land would take advantage of.

I shook my cantine before sipping. Almost gone, even with half-rations.

Running the merchants off the road, into the wilderness, was a bad idea. My superior ordered us after them, perhaps knowing we would not return. To the victor go the spoils, I supposed. Even if I did catch up with the runners, the other men had fallen hours past, and I'd discarded any excuse for a weapon to be swallowed by the dunes.

Busy contemplating the best way to die in a desert, I tripped over something and fell to my hands and knees. Retracing my steps, I found a lump of white stone protruding from the sand. Only, it wasn't stone at all, but bone. I spent some time uncovering it, as there was little else to occupy a bandit's time before he dried out and died alone in the closest excuse for Hell in all the land.

I found there a full skeleton, picked clean by vultures, clad in fine white robes and resplendent with jewelry. Chief among the pieces was a medallion in tribute to Al-Dram, the Sun. As I pocketed the medallion and other accouterments, the strangest sense of déjà vu washed over me. Geography and survivalism lessons from classes I'd long forgotten suddenly came to the forefront of my mind. My life before crime and cruelty might just save me, I thought.

Southwest, said a voice in my head. A very convincing voice. There you will be safe.

“There I will be safe,” I repeated. I started walking but stopped short. I looked back at the collection of bones. Perhaps I should carry it with me? Was it worth the effort?

If the authorities or other merchants happen upon you, they may question your treasures. Fair enough. And the man who left you to die could think you tricked him, to take the riches for yourself.

“But if I have the body,” I concluded, “I'll be a hero returning a man's remains to his family, or a fine warrior returning the spoils to my benefactor.”

Yes! the voice in my head chirped with delight.

The bandit dragged the merchant's bones, wrapped in his own robes, behind him as he headed toward civilization at the voice's behest.

Little did he know of curses, or perhaps he would have thought twice.

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