The air burned. It was always hot, but Xali felt this heat in her bones. Every breath seared her lungs as she sat atop the plateau. The Conclave warned her not to go out again. But she couldn’t sit by and do nothing. She watched and waited for the squad’s return. Seven trips over seven days yielded nothing. Every time they came back empty-handed. Every failure meant they were one step closer to death. The Criod Zone faced frequent dry spells, but this sudden heatwave brought new meaning to that phrase. The community relied heavily on eight watering holes. The paltry Sylf Loch system provided life. The unprecedented heatwave dried the system up. Sand and dusty plateaus stretched seemingly infinitely.
Xali spotted the squad as they rounded the double plateaus creating the community’s entrance. She sighed in frustration as she read their disappointed expressions. They appeared exhausted, dehydrated and defeated. Xali moved from her slightly shaded spot, leaving only sweaty handprints in the red mud. She scrambled down the rope and into a tunnel. Many tunnels led to the carved out dwelling of her people. Living underground provided relief from the heat; however, her people were going to die if they didn’t find water soon.
A crowd gathered in the main hall around the returning squad. Xali knew hope coursed through them; she knew despair would soon take over. With sorrow in their eyes, the squad leader delivered the bad news. Panicked murmurings flowed through the room. A plan brewed in Xali’s head over the past few days. She knew the Conclave likely wouldn’t agree to it. Otherwise, they would have done it already. It was the simplest solution, but that didn’t mean it was without peril. Xali gathered her nerves as everyone around her asked the same questions.
“What will we do now?”
“How are we going to survive?”
Xali pushed them all out of her head. The plan terrified her, but no one else offered up what everyone was thinking. Amidst a sea of half-hearted suggestions, Xali stepped forward. The Conclave dwarfed the rail-thin orphan. Since her parents died, Xali had been on her own. Customarily, the community took collective responsibility for an orphaned child. But not with Xali. She learned early on that she had to be tough. If she wanted to survive, she had to be stronger than anyone else.
“What is is now, Xali?” a slender man stared down his long, pointed nose at her.
She stood as tall as possible and replied, “I want to go to the Oasis.”
The slender man scoffed and stared her down, “Not even our bravest are willing to travel across The Barren Lands. We don’t even know if the Oasis exists.”
Xali held her ground, “They obviously aren’t the bravest then.”
“You would die on the trip, and for what? A legend?” he continued trying to break her spirit.
“Well then, worst case, you don’t have to deal with me anymore; best case, we get water.”
“Speaking of water, we don’t even have the reserves to send you with enough to survive,” he said smugly.
Not willing to back down, Xali remained resilient, “How much do we have left?”
“Three days,” he lied. But why waste their resources on her when she insisted on a suicide mission?
“I’ll take only my share.”
Someone from the crowd piped up, “Just let her go, if she succeeds we live, if she doesn’t, well, what does it really matter?”
Xali knew her parents had been outcastes. She knew that meant she was as well. It didn’t seem fair being punished simply for existing. She’d grown up with it and become numb to it; even so, to hear such unabashed hatred stung.
Pointy nose - his name was lost somewhere in her mind years ago after she’d come up with the uninspired nickname - was willing to let her go if it seemed like the people agreed. This way, when she died, no one could singularly blame him.
“Fine. I suspect you’ll want to leave after sunset when it’s coolest. You’ll get three day’s water ration, and that’s all.”
Xali nodded her head in agreement and left to sleep and pack. She covered herself head to toe in a grey linen cloth. The light color not only provided relief from the sun it also camouflaged her with the stone of The Barren Lands. The Barren Lands wasn’t any hotter than her home; it wasn’t even inhabited. What made it dangerous was the creature rumored to live within. No one could say definitively why that area lay abandoned. Long before her elder’s time, something happened that destroyed the intricate stone city. Everyone vanished, their marvelous stone works turned to rubble, and all that remained was the creature said to have brought the civilization to its knees. Knowing the myths, Xali then armed herself to the teeth. Her bow, strapped to her back; two daggers, one strapped to each thigh; and a short sword, stuck to her boot. She wasn’t much of a fighter, but she needed adventure. She needed to get out. And, if she didn’t take the risk, no one would survive much longer.
As the sun began to set, Xali headed to the cafeteria to collect her water. She knew no one here thought her capable of much, and that went double for Pointy-Nose; so, she thought it safe to assume they had more than three day’s water rations. Still, she wasn’t going to waste time. No one came to send her off; no one wanted to say goodbye or wish her luck. She took her water, some food, and set off. The cloudless, navy blue sky offered a much more bearable temperature. Many people preferred to be out at night. The setting red sun illuminating the red sand contrasted with a deep blue sky was one of the most beautiful sights Xali had ever seen. The most beautiful would appear in a couple of hours when the brilliant map of silver stars filled the sky.
She walked down the plateau-lined path towards the open desert. Many eyes watched her from the tops. Not everyone actively despised her. She got the sense many simply followed the crowd for fear of being ostracized themselves. Xali walked through the night, letting the stars guide her. She knew she had to move fast. She couldn’t waste time admiring the desert around her.
As the sun rose, casting a pale orange glow all around her, Xali found the border of The Barren Lands. She needed rest; she needed shade; she needed to prepare. Walking along the edge, she searched for a good place to stop and sleep. She found a large, collapsed pillar and used the rubble for cover. It was far from comfortable, but she hadn’t expected comfort. It provided shade and shelter during the hottest part of the day, and that’s all she needed.
Xali planned to take a short nap, but when she awoke, the sun hung low in the sky.
“Damn!” she jumped up.
She didn’t want to face the creature in the dark. Skirting the edges of The Barren Lands wasn’t an option in her mind. No one knew how far it stretched. No one really knew much of anything. But best guesses led her to believe the quickest way to The Oasis was straight through. Having wasted the better part of a day, she feared her only option was to sneak through the rubble and pray for the best. With any luck, she’d be at The Oasis by morning. Time crept by as she calculated every move. From the ruins of one collapsed building to the next, she anticipated coming face to face with a horrible creature each time she stepped out. But the ruined city was dead.
The more she traveled, the more the legend dissipated from her mind. It had been a city like every other, like the one she came from. This one just happened to be more unlucky than the rest. She began to move faster. Stones rumbled under her foot. She climbed up to a nearly intact floor of a once giant building. It offered very little in the way of cover, but the flat surface was far easier to traverse. She scrambled towards the ledge. The dwindling sunlight barely shone on top of the shelf as she pulled herself up. A chunk of stone crumbled under her foot and fell several stories to the street below. Xali froze. The hollow sound reverberated through the ghost city, filling the silence. At that moment, Xali realized just how dead this place was.
Even in her desert home, wind rustled scarce leaves, tiny creatures scuttled around, sand gently shifted. A place this shaded and broken should have been a haven for all sorts of animals and plant life; the wind should howl through the decrepit hallways of stone. But there was absolutely nothing. Silence reigned here. And she had broken it. Quickly, she searched for the nearest cover. All the logic she’d built up in her head - this being a normal, abandoned city - flew out the window. Years of legends flooded back, overwhelming her. Naively, she had thought a few moments of experience would override all the stories she’d grown up with, that she could simply will away legends with reason.
She held her breath and listened. In the distance, she heard gravel sliding on concrete. The rumbling steadily grew louder. Something slithered across the ground below. Being a desert dweller, Xali was no stranger to snakes. Even the largest she’d seen, though, shouldn’t have been able to roll so smoothly over the jagged stones without injury. Xali remained frozen in her hiding spot, unwilling to move in the slightest, even if it meant getting a view of what made the noise.
With only the moon lighting the ruins, she knew the creature could see better than her. The grinding sound continued until it was, without a doubt, right below her. Then it stopped. Lungs screaming for air, Xali dared not breathe, dared not move. Everything returned briefly to the unnatural silence of The Barren Lands. Then, a rush of wind whipped past her, and more stone crumbled away as she came face to face with the beast. She gasped, giving herself much needed air, but the sensation was far from relieving. Thin eyes with slits for pupils stared out of a narrow face full of sharp angles. Skin gave way to glimmering golden scales that covered their head and most of their body. The creature before her turned Xali’s expectations on their head. She prepared for something terrifying, something exuding hostility. In front of her towered something magnificent, something beautiful.
Xali snapped out of her mesmerized state. Too close to use the bow, she reached for her short sword. The creature frowned, and Xali experienced a wave of regret flow through her as if she cared deeply about disappointing the creature.
Then the snake spoke, “Why do you first go to violence?”
The thick accent and velvety voice startled Xali. Regardless of what she’d expected, she hadn’t anticipated a conversation. She knew how to fight, but was stunned for speech.
The snake continued, “Why don’t we just talk? Why are you here?”
“I-I need to get to Oasis,” Xali managed to stammer.
“But why through my city? Why not go around? I’ve spent a very long time making sure humans avoid this place, whispering in their ears tales of a monster so frightening they dare not push their luck.”
“Our water has dried up. It hasn’t rained in months, and going around would waste time we don’t have.”
“So, you trespass?”
“Please, can I just pass thought?” Xali implored.
The snake thought for a moment, “What then? You find your water and more come? More feet stomping through my city, more humans taking and taking until there’s nothing left to take?”
Feeling attacked, Xali spoke, “This was a human city. You merely laid claim to it once the humans left.”
“Precisely. It was a human city. I claimed it after the humans destroyed it and after they died. No one was left to own it, so I took it. And is that not how all territory is claimed anymore?”
Xali didn’t have an answer. She knew her community killed for their home. She realized now why this city now lay in rubble. She thought about her home, her people. True, no one accepted her. But so few civilizations remained. Could she doom them simply because they didn’t want her?
Finally, she spoke, “I need to pass. Are you going to let me through?”
Xali lowered her head, sighed, and tightened her grip on her sword. She didn’t want to kill this creature, but it was the only way her people could pass through safely.
The snake giggled, “You plan to fight me, even though you stand no chance?”
She stared in Xali’s eyes, determination, passion, purpose.
“You’re different, and I like that. I’ll let you pass.”
Xali stood stunned.
“But only you,” the snake said in a way that let Xali know they wouldn’t budge from that decision.
“That won’t help my people,” she readied her sword, “I can’t carry enough back by myself. At the very least a squad needs to come help.”
“Put that thing down. I will help you carry enough back. Then, your people may go around my city. I will show you a safe path. But I warn you, step one foot back in here, and I will not hesitate to strike.”
Xali didn’t lower her sword, “Why would you help me?”
“It’s clear you don’t intend to give up. You are rare among humans, so I don’t wish to kill you. Others could learn something from you. I also don’t want anyone in my city. So, the best comprise would be,” the creature sighed and adopted a disgusted tone, “to help you.”
Xali felt exhaustion catch up to her. Her muscles ached, her water all drank. She knew she couldn’t win the fight. The thought of trusting the creature set off alarms in her head. She lifted her face to meet the eyes of the snake. Her face expressed desperation.
“I’m trusting you,” she sheathed her sword.
“Not a wise choice, but the only one you have. Climb down, and I will carry you to Oasis.”
She did as instructed. The descent stole every drop of energy Xali had left. As the snake laid completely horizontal, she climbed on, laying flat against the scales. The snake moved much faster than Xali ever could have, winding through the city. They knew every stone, every tunnel, every advantage Xali lacked. They reached The Oasis before the sun rose.
The Oasis was unlike anything Xali had ever witnessed. She’d never seen a single tree. The Oasis housed so many different kinds. Grass grew wild and abundant. Her ears filled with sounds of bugs and animals, wind and rushing water. The canopy blocked the sky completely. But so many bugs and plants illuminated the forest that she could see clearer than by moonlight. Everything was wild, untouched by humans. Xali knew her people could benefit from living here. She also knew they shouldn’t. The snake was right about one thing. Humans would destroy this place.
Xali filled her water bottles up. She spent the rest of the night with the snake fashioning containers to carry back enough water to hold her people over. The two spoke about their lives to pass time. They spoke of a plan to keep this place sacred. Xali and the snake agreed on when and how the humans would use this resource. When they contained as much as they were able to carry, they set off towards Xali’s home.
Xali rode through the passage on the snakes back, both laden with water. She heard the murmurs all around her. Many hid in fear of the creature. Outside the main tunnel, Xali met Pointy-Nose. His expression was all Xali needed to know her job was complete. No one believed she would return; that much was clear. But once she told everyone her story, they thanked her, and many apologized for the suffering she’d endured on their behalf. No one doubted her claims, after all, she’d come back with the most delicious water they’d ever tasted, riding the back of a creature of legend. The community welcomed Xali back as the snake slithered home. She knew, with relief and sorrow, as long as she kept her deal, she would never see the creature again.