Her bare feet crunched white sand beneath. The march seemed never-ending. Step, crunch, repeat. Step, crunch, repeat. Her calloused toes no longer hurt, but felt lifeless, tiny slabs of flesh and bone displacing insignificant swirls of silvery dust. Endless dunes stretched as far as the eyes could see, a vast, dry ocean of nothingness. She gazed up at the blank canvas above, her amber eyes tearing up from the sun.
She coughed and hot air grazed the inside of her dry throat. Fingers clasped around her waterskin, she shook it, but no drops fell on her tongue. Just heat. Scorching hotness pressed down on her with physical weight. It was as if the desert wanted her essence. Wind blew through her ashen hair, sharp blades of sand pinching her cheeks.
The dunes were alive, lit ablaze by gods of fire and light mercilessly stabbing at her body with their invisible flames.
Her body felt like hot lead, the blanket below hissing its soothing lullaby. Panting, she willed herself forward, but to no avail. She was too young, too feeble and weak to finish her journey. The sand below shifted under her feet and she tumbled down a dune, dust flooding her nose and mouth.
"Come on, Anilah, stand up. Stand up," she whispered, spitting dirt. "You must find him, you must! There is no other choice."
Her childlike body twitched and darkness crept in through the corners of her eyes. She tried to crawl, but her body didn't listen. Desert winds howled above, covering her in a coat of sand. She rolled on her back and took a deep breath. Life was slowly fading out of her, the desert was bellowing, calling for her soul to return into infinity. She closed her eyes and allowed silence to carry her away. The wind faded in the distance and the heat turned to a pleasant evening chill.
"You were here last time," she whispered as her mind spiraled into eternal sleep. "Where are you? I need you."
Darkness embraced her in a motherly grasp. Her mind flared up, a blue web of electric impulses overcharging the circuitry of her unconscious mind. Her inward eyes opened up, rekindled amber pulsating glows of energy. The desert gods had forsaken her, yet now they were summoning her home. From the void's horizon, an outstretch of sand tumbled towards her with a deafening rumble.
Her body reforged, she walked forward, driven by an inner urge to become one with everything. A child of the desert in life, a spirit of the sands in death. The dunes split in two, and large swirls of dust twirled above in a mighty storm. A paved pathway, glowing shades of purple and blue spirit stone, erupted from the depths. Her feet touched the freezing stones, and the amber in her eyes flickered expectantly.
The silhouette of a woman appeared at the far end of the bridge. Azure whirlwinds of light wavered around her in a dance of mites and stars. The shadow sauntered forward, plunging waves of sand crashing at feet and receding to the sides as if drawn by invisible hands. Luminescent blue particles stuck to her curly hair, its flailing motion enveloping her visage in an electrifying aura.
She stopped and kneeled in front of the little girl. She extended her hands and the sands froze in place, arched crests of blond rock. Kneeling down, the wraith's visage flared up in familiar features. Anilah bit her lip and tugged at her desert cape, tears welling in her eyes. Words stuck to her throat as she buried her face in the woman's chest.
"Mother, you're here," she cried, embracing her tightly. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! I think I failed."
Her mother wiped away the tears streaming down Anilah's cheeks. She kneeled and kissed her forehead, a soothing smile brightening her gentle face.
"My sweet girl, why do you cry? There is no reason to cry," she said, her voice a pleasant melody. She ran her fingers through Anilah's crinkly hair and chuckled.
"But, if you're here, that means you're... You're with the gods," she whispered, eyes pinned to her toes. "It means I failed."
"It could be so, or not," she replied, as the sands around slowly shifted. "I've already been here for some time, but I feel like only a few minutes have passed. Yet, my love, even if what you think is true, there is no need for you to suffer. The desert welcomed me like one of its own, I am not an intruder here. Just look," she said, springing to her feet. She raised her hands at the yellow sky. Dunes around them hummed a low buzz, almost like a chant. They rippled in outward patterns, perfect circles held in place by her mother's soul.
"Look," she said, veering her gaze upwards as if struck by an epiphany. The sky roared and the yellow veil cracked in a rain of billions of sand-flakes. A red sun, its surface erupting in beautiful flares governed the new celestial dome. Darkness encircled it.
"This is the world beyond, my love. This is the power and beauty that lies here for every single child of the desert. In death, our sands welcome us to our real home, over there!" she exclaimed, pointing a finger at the blackness above.
Glimmering orbs of light gradually flashed bright hues on the dark canvas. Newborn stars revolving around the sun in perfect circular harmony. A mesmerizing voice crooned all around, joined by thousands of others in a choir of souls. Anilah staggered forward as if hypnotized. Gaping like a dumbstruck lamb, she stopped by her mother and silently watched the ethereal spectacle unfolding in the sky.
"You see, wake up. Hey, wake up!" her mother said, bringing her face closer to Anilah's.
"Wake up!" she cried again, licking her on the nose.
"Mother, what are you doing?" the girl said, stepping back. Her mother closed in with a feline lunge and clutched her hands around Anilah's face.
"Wake up! Hey, wake up!"
Her eyes refused to open. Her lids felt like iron and she felt as dry as a desert plum. Her cheek stung as if brushed with harsh sandpaper. She opened her eyes and pushed away whatever lay on top of her. Reclaimed by the world of the living, her senses slowly recovered.
A monotonous drip rippled nearby. Drops of water, of precious life essence, and they were close. She darted to her feet and lunged like a starved panther in the direction of the sound. Realizing her surroundings, she froze in place and glanced around. The walls of a tall cave extended about, angular corners carved in stone. Spiky rods protruded out of its domed ceiling, coated in a shimmering layer of water. The light was dim, yet bright enough to allow sight.
Anilah walked to a corner, dropped to all fours and guzzled down a fresh slough. Every cell in her body ignited, invigorated by the elixir. Resting her forehead in her palms, she laughed away her fear and sorrow. She closed her eyes and envisioned her small village, its streets empty. At its outskirts, a procession lead by her father trod out into the dunes, carrying a body enveloped in a silver-thread cloth.
'No, she can't be dead. She is alive and she's waiting for me to return,' she thought, glancing around for an exit.
"I see you," a playful voice intoned from somewhere above. Anilah's heart jumped to her throat and she pressed her back against a cold wall. Her heart pounded against her ribs and her perception expanded. Awareness outstretched beyond the limitations of the mind and body. She was a shroud, a shadow, blending in with everything. New sounds scratched her inner ear, colonies of insects scurrying underground, wind sounds, muffled and redirected by the rocks, everything was echoing within her.
A deep vibration rang in her stomach. Like a furious river, it flowed through her body, energizing every particle within. 'I see you,' the impish voice echoed around, circling from above. Anilah filled her lungs with air and steadied her heartbeat. She had felt this in the past. The fox was there. The desert had been merciful enough to listen to her cries for a second time.
"Where are you?" she inquired in a confident tone. "I came again to ask for your help. I thought you had abandoned me." The voice replied with mischievous laughter and two blue eyes lit up in the obscurity above. Their cobalt radiance cast an incandescent aura, revealing a pair of pointy, desert-fox ears.
"You came to play with me again?" it replied, floating down to the ground. "Last time you came, we played and laughed and..." Its voice drifted away and its eyes pinned Anilah. The small fox sprang in the air like a dark arrow. Its tail, twice as long as the body, fluttered behind, a trail of ash flakes tracing its path. The weightless spirit dropped on the girl's head, and coiled around itself.
"I found you wandering the spirit realm. I felt your sorrow, Anilah. I can sense you are not here to play with me anymore. Tell me, what is it that you seek?"
Its soft fur tickled Anilah's forehead. Frowning, she pushed a hot breath upwards. The fox sprang away, littering the child's face with stains of dark ash. The specter tumbled in the air and dropped at Anilah's feet, rubbing its ethereal body against her ankles.
"I never like that," it cried, shaking off the unpleasant feeling.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," the girl said, biting her nails. "You asked me why I'm here. I don't feel well asking this of you, but I need your help. Ha," she croaked, slamming the back of her head against the wall, "I seek your help, yet I can't even remember your name."
"My name?" the fox asked, flying up to match the child's height. "My name is Enshu, but I never revealed it to you, so don't feel bad. You can't forget something you never knew."
"Thank you," she whimpered, dropping her gaze. For some reason, it was hard to ask help from the spirits of the desert, but there was no other way. She clenched her fists and shrugged off uncertainty. She pinned Enshu down with a resolute stare, the amber in her eyes glowing intensely.
"I need you to come to my village and make my mother feel well again!"
It came out easier than she had believed it would. A strange calm followed, as if she had discarded an invisible boulder that was crunching her wiry body. She pursed her lips and swallowed in fear.
"I beg you, come."
The fox tilted its small head and vanished in the darkness above. Anilah's eyes bulged out of her skull and her body fell numb. Silence followed. A deep, unsettling silence. Pain stabbed her chest and water streamed down her cheeks. She tried to cry out for Enshu to return, but she felt too weak to make a sound.
The ground beneath bellowed and groaned, shaking violently, as if to match her sorrow. 'A fitting grave,' she thought, as the walls around cracked down. The ceiling tore open, a whirlwind of boulders and stones ascending to the ghastly sky. A tongue of sand slithered through and pulled her out the cave.
The ground disappeared from beneath her feet and her chest felt like bursting. She dared to open her eyes and look around. A cloud of black sand was carrying her through the air, the dunes below moving too fast for the eye to track. The fox soared in front of her, and Anilah realized she was sitting on its tail.
"We'll be there in a few minutes," Enshu giggled, darting up to the clouds. Anilah's stomach knotted and twisted in her belly. She let out a terrified, yet exhilarated cry. The spirit pierced the clouds like lightning and ascended above them.
Anilah gasped in disbelief.
Shades her eyes had never seen before unfurled at the horizon. Intertwined streaks of ethereal purple, sapphire blue, lava red, and peachy orange weaved a hypnotic knitting, the setting sun governing the panorama with its ever-watchful blaze.
She tried to speak, but her lips were sealed shut. All she could do was moon into infinity, feeling like a small speck of dust lost in the greatness desert. She closed her eyes and felt the cold wind in her face. She was free, released of her past and present, unshackled from the world below. For those few minutes, she was a spirit of the sands, a god, like Enshu.
The fox bolted back through the wet curtain of clouds, plummeting like a meteor. In the distance, small straw rooftops popped out of dunes, sketching the distant shadow of Anilah's village. She rubbed her eyes in disbelief as the village came closer and closer. Enshu lashed its tail and launched her up in tumbles, laughing childishly.
In freefall, she felt at peace. She opened her arms like a bird and flew. Just before slamming into the ground, the fox wrapped its tail around her, and carefully landed at the village entrance. A few of her folk gaped and slapped their faces, wondering if they were mad. An old woman who was carefully balancing a water jug on her head spun on her heels and cried in disbelief.
Tears welled up behind her dark eyes. She placed the jug on the ground with care, then ran to Anilah, squeezing her body in a desperate embrace.
"Little one," the woman cried, "we thought the desert had claimed you, we thought..." Words stuck to her throat as her arms clutched Anilah tight. The child wriggled away from her grasp and worked her voice, assuming a dignified posture, as her mother had taught her.
"My people, I have returned from the desert. The gods have answered my prayer and sent Enshu to me," she said, as the black desert fox bolted on her shoulder. The crowd gaped in amazement. They whispered and mumbled about the touch of the gods, about Anilah's destiny, but they were too far away for the girl to make out everything. "The desert has provided, so we must thank the dunes for their benevolence. Tell me, is my mother still alive?"
It was hard to maintain a strong appearance. Her insides twisted and turned violently, and she was barely managing to control her shaking. The woman from before stepped forward, bowed ceremoniously and pointed to Anilah's house.
"The chief is sleeping," she muttered in a grim tone.
The hut laid there, atop a tall dune bathed in crimson sunset shades, its roof barely visible. The child glanced at Enshu, a pleading face shivering uncertainy. The fox enveloped her in its tail and flew.
The eastern sky was already dark, timid stars flickering into wakefulness, ready to guard the world of humankind for yet another night. The moon had risen, too, its ghoulish light diminished by the dying sun. Anilah chewed her lips and pushed the wooden door. Enshu followed closely, its tail coiling up like a whirlwind.
On a bed of straws, her mother lay. Her eyes were closed, two caves of blackness almost sinking in her skull. Her once smooth skin was now ashen and lifeless, like dead bark on a chopped log. The lamp above her bed flickered, projecting eerie shadows on the walls. It was as if the spirits from beyond were watching her silent departure.
Anilah stepped forward, but Enshu's tail pinned her to a standstill. Its prancing gait was no more, now it stepped gracefully, undulating along the floor like a predatory cougar. Its smoky tail seeped deep within shadows, the timid candle flame diminishing to a spark. Glowing from the darkness, Enshu's blue eyes seemed like two pulsating souls. The spirit cuddled on her mother's chest and looked up.
"We'll play again in the realm beyond."
As the last word echoed, Enshu closed its eyes and faded into smoke. Her mother's body convulsed violently as the fog dissolved into her, bringing color back into her cheeks. Anilah reached for a bucket of water and dashed to her mother's side, cleaning the sweat off her twitching body with a cool cloth.
The tremors stopped, the candle rekindled. Her mother's eyes opened wide, glowing a cobalt blue. Anilah stepped back, then broke into tears. Sobbing, she wrapped her arms around her, the warmth of a mother's body soothing all her pains.
The cloud of sand below her darted up and down in the sky. Anilah glanced up and saw her mother tumbling in and out of clouds. She smiled and glanced in the distance. The roofless dune appeared and she adjusted her flight.
They both landed inside the cave where once, a black desert fox had saved Anilah. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and produced a blue desert flower. Laying it on a stone alongside nine other flowers, she glanced up and shut her eyes.
"I will always keep him in my heart," Anilah whispered, remembering the events from ten years before.
"He isn't dead, Anilah, can't you hear him? He's just waiting for us in the realm beyond."
Anilah nodded and rubbed her eyes, then summoned sand and shot above the clouds. The colors flooded her view, as beautiful as ever.
"Thank you for this, god of the sands. Thank you for your magic," she whispered, as she flew into the bright horizon.