* * *
I have chosen you, Rashid.
The whisper echoed. Rashid sat upright in his meager bed. It was a bed in the servant’s quarters that a friend of a friend of a… Well, the degree of separation is high, but unimportant. He had made his way to the farms skirting the border of the great desert. Rashid filled the washbasin from a clay pitcher and did what one normally does with such things. He walked to the open window and hurled the contents out. The used water struck the dirt and as expected, part of it evaporated under the constant heat, even in the morning.
Rashid was about to turn away when something unexpected happened: Instead of steam, black smoke rose from the water. Rashid slammed the shutters closed and sat on the edge of his straw bed, face covered with his hands, rocking back and forth. Moving his hands ever so often to glare at the window.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted. Rashid rubbed the spot on his finger where the ring was and the woman had kissed. There didn’t appear to be anything amiss, but Rashid’s mind kept churning out scenario after scenario – each one ended with him atop a steed of putrid black smoke holding aloft a great sword of gleaming brass. When he closed his eyes, he could hear the clockwork mechanism emanating from the weapon.
In his dream, the ticking and thudding of the sword grew until his heart followed suit. Oya turned to him, smiled with obsidian lips and tapped him in the center of his chest. The clicking and thudding increased in intensity and duration until he felt as if his chest were burning from the inside.
Oya smiled and reached into his chest, removing a clockwork heart. The intricate gears and movement throbbed with a life essence. Oya smiled, her tendrils of hair-smoke billowing. She raised the heart to her lips and the object of her fascination became smoke itself. Oya breathed deeply and inhaled the smoke until her hand was empty. Before Rashid could clutch his hand to his chest, Oya spoke:
Have faith in smoke, Rashid.
* * *
Rain pummeled the endless sea of sand. Precipitation was not unheard of, but it was rare enough that certain rituals and beliefs formed around it. Themba surveyed the torrent from atop a mule. He shielded his eyes from the glaring sun and marveled that the fiery orb that made life so difficult would dare show itself while the beauty of rain presented.
A smile crept across Themba’s face, satiated in the knowledge that what moisture wasn’t absorbed by the sand would trickle to the farms below. The thought of those farms demanded his gaze. He looked across dunes, but his eyes never made it to the farms. Something glittering on the ground garnered his attention.
Themba made a clicking sound with his tongue and the beast of burden lazily moved in the direction Themba desired. Drawing ever closer, Themba turned each time he crested a dune to gaze upon the marvel of the rain. He vowed to enjoy the spectacle for as long as it lasted, for a rainstorm of this intensity and duration was rare indeed.
Themba climbed down from his mule when he reached the location of the glitter. The mule backed away and Themba was inclined to do the same. A pillar of pale light seemed to strike the ground, and at the point of impact grew a flowering plant. There was no sign of upkeep and the ground wasn’t moist. Themba spent several moments staring at the plant and its single white flower, its petals shaped like stars, unsure how to proceed. He reached for it, but a noise from his companion stopped him.
His mule had backed away and had gotten its hoof stuck. “Curse you, you stupid beast,” he hissed.
“A curse upon a beast of burden?”
Themba spun to see a woman with hair of gold and a flowing white gown.
“Surely there are worse things to curse.”
Themba stood mute, fixated on the bright red lips of this mysterious woman. They hadn’t moved when she spoke!
The woman smiled and reached up to play with her golden hair. Her lips moved when she spoke again. “If it fills you with ease, I can speak to you this way.”
No longer was the voice merely in his head. The woman’s voice reminded him of a child’s. Themba fell to the ground and prostrated himself. “Spare me!”
“Rise, son of man,” she intoned.
The woman strode to the mule and stroked its muzzle. She whispered into the beast’s ear, and Themba’s companion appeared to understand what she said. The woman reached and at her touch, the mule’s hair seemed to transform to vines. Hooves and legs became branches. Themba’s mule transformed to the most perfect topiary before his eyes.
Thamba wailed and thrashed at the loss of his companion. So distraught was he, that he failed to notice that the plant transformation wasn’t limited to just his mule.
* * *
Sabiti turned to the small group following him. A man stepped forward and with a great deal of reluctance spoke. “Mi’Lord, we are thirsty.”
“Save your titles for those that desire such honor.” Sabiti spat, showing his disdain for the word ‘honor.’
The man licked his dry, cracked lips. “I understand, but…”
“But what?” Sabiti waved his hand. “Speak your mind.”
“We’ve followed you for days. When you entered the great desert without food or drink, we thought you mad, but still we followed.”
Sabiti surveyed the crowd and witnessed the nods of agreement.
“If we are to proceed, we need proof of your ‘Osun.’”
“Proof?” Sabiti stepped forward and the man shrank from his advance. “You seek proof now?”
Sabiti turned his back. “You’ve worshiped at a temple of lies for so long. You’ve drank the poison each week.” He turned again to face the crowd. “You did this on faith. No symbol or experience compelled you to do so.”
The crowd stepped back and distanced themselves from the outspoken man.
“The Way is older than our forefathers, yet you wish to abandon me after only a few days?”
A slight murmur permeated through the crowd. “A sign, mi’Lord?” begged the man.
Sabiti raised his arms to the sky. “Mistress Osun!” he shouted to the heavens. “Return this non-believer to the sand from which he was birthed!”
“No, mi’Lord, I…” The crowd watched as the man slowly turned to stone. It started with his tongue and then spread to the rest of his body. What was alive in flesh was now stone. Sabiti rested his hand of the shoulder of the man-statue and it turned to sand retaining the same form. The crowd stood dumfounded and speechless. Sabiti looked to the heavens again, and a single drop of precipitation landed on his nose. He turned his attention to the stunned crowd and smiled. The skies opened and a deluge fell upon them. Each drop bit into the statue and washed a part of it away.
Next: Desperate Measures