E.L. Bolt, 12th - Oakland, CA
I expected it to be cold when I awoke. Wasn’t death supposed to be cold and dark? But I felt the heat of the desert going right through me, no skin to warm, no hair to bleach with pounding rays. It did not warm nor scorch or burn, it simply was.
Blood stained the sand from several wounded, and seeping still from my body. The others clustered around it, once so dear to me now I could not remember their names. Some wept, some stared in disbelief, as if they did not expect this war to take anything from them. But it had, and would again.
I turned from the group, looking toward the western horizon. To the west, the sea. I could board a ship, travel further west from there. A shame I had to die so far from home. Something that could have been a sigh escaped me, and I began to move.
The desert was vast. It had taken weeks to cross it, on the brink of exhaustion. It took me less than three days. I did not need rest, food, water. And with no feet to slip on the sand, no legs to ache with fatigue, I could travel far faster.
For a day I held on to the pack of a merchant’s camel. They had a talisman on their saddle, one of the few things I could touch now. When they saw it trail behind as I held on for a ride, they smiled.
“I’m heading west,” they said. “There’s a city, we should make it by sunset. I turn south there, but there’s a caravan that continues to the coast. I’m afraid I cannot help you if you need to head north.”
Their camel was old, and they did not make the city by sundown. I was grateful, I did not feel fatigue but it was nice to hear them utter simple nothings to me, better than the silence of the desert. I lured a rare desert hare into their fire. They roasted it with dried herbs, and left a leg out for me when they slept.
Gifts mean something. I could not eat the meat, nor touch it really, but it did fill what remained of my being with warmth. I felt strong, and I was able to concentrate hard enough to move a small stick slightly.
I kept the jackals away from the camp until dawn, and when they packed up to leave, I followed them to the city, where they said goodbye and wished me good luck.
I learned quickly it was pointless to travel on my own. I got lost easily, and it could be days before I found someone with a totem or talisman. Each dawn that saw me in this state grated on me, it was a constant prickling itch. I wanted to rest.
When I found my way back to the city, I caught a traveller with a totem, trailing in the wake of the caravan. He didn’t notice me, which was fine. I was content to follow and listen to him hum and sing to his horse. Two days and we reached the sea.
The port city was crowded, I found it easier to float over the peoples heads than dodge between them. On the busy docks captains shouted orders, hands loaded and unloaded cargo, boatswains called out their destinations. There were few heading west, but most ships had at least one crew member who kept a totem. The one I chose had two, plus one tied to the mast. They left the next dawn, a roaming ghost in tow.
The cat could sense me, I think. It would watch me with large blue eyes, sometimes trying to rub against me but there was nothing to rub on. I was still grateful for the company, and during the week-long voyage I helped it eradicate the rats in the cargo hold.
That was the first time I saw another spirit. They rose from the tiny bodies the cat either ate or batted around. They didn’t try to go somewhere, didn't make a journey. They only went back to whatever nest they had built or taken up residence in. They lay down to sleep in their little nests, and the spirits dissolved. I found myself wishing I was a rat, something that could lay down and rest for eternity, not condemned to wander homeward.
Though the cat was kind, and I believe it missed me, I was glad to be off the boat. Solid land meant temples, and temples often had shrines to the dead. The one in this town did.
The little room had no one praying within, the altar sat empty but for a small runestone. But the soothing cool washed over me, and for a while I rested there. An acolyte discovered me and left me little offerings. When I left, I summoned my strength to leave a flower for her.
I traveled further west with a lovely couple. They had their wagon and their hound, and they were happy to have me. They named me Julie, which was fine, for I didn’t remember my name. Nor what I looked like, really, but such was the way of things. It didn’t matter now, I just needed to get home.
My companions turned south a few days later, and I was left to sit at the crossroads and wait. I dared not strike out on my own, for this long as a spirit had made me too detached. Mortal markers and roads meant little to me, for what is the difference between the dirt of the road and the dirt of the grasslands beyond it after all?
I did not wait long. Or perhaps I did, time was beginning to dissolve. So were other things; distance, feelings, light; they were just concepts. Not solid. But, after some amount of time, a group of merchants passed me by. A few of them had totems hanging from their saddles, so I trailed along behind them. But one had a seal of warding. I dimly remembered, rumors' of superstition and bad luck floating at the edges of my foggy mind. But rumors' or not its effects were real enough. It drained my strength, weakened me, until I lost my grip on the totem and fell to the road.
I lay there for a time, drifting occasionally like an old dried leaf. Eventually someone found me. It was odd, the girl could see me. She couldn’t touch me, of course. I was so faint that I couldn’t have summoned the will to move a blade of grass, much less let her feel me. But she could see me, and that was enough.
Her family was camped nearby, and when she told them about me they believed her. They left me gifts, and slowly I regained my spirit. They wanted to know where I was going, which was a silly question really. I didn’t know of course, I just knew I needed to keep heading west. I could feel it's direction, and if I could get there I would rest.
Nevertheless, they were continuing west, and they had plenty of amulets for me. They were so open to me that it took barely any strength at all to keep my hold on them. Before long I had regained enough strength to keep wild animals at bay, and lure them their dinner.
Another spirit shared their fire briefly. He was barely a shadow, he had been wandering for so long. He faded back into the night before long, away to find another traveler.
The family turned north, and I was alone, wandering again. I was resting in a temple to the dead when she came.
She was hung so thickly in amulets and totems that as she walked she clacked like old bones. She prayed for a long time, several days I thought though time was hard for me now. Finally, she spoke.
“Let any wandering spirit make their destination known to me, and I will ferry you forth.”
How curious. She had tools, items that I could easily manipulate. Salt, silver, iron, sand. All within a small glass ball, which she held on a chain. I could point the pendulum toward my home.
She did not speak. I had grown used to the chatter of voices, soft and distant to me now, but there. I did not mind the silence. It was peaceful.
She left me gifts each night when she slept, I kept her safe and fed, such was the arrangement. After some time, perhaps a long stretch of it as my guide looked fatigued, we drew near. My home, the tiny house perched on a cliff over the sea. The little garden in front, people bustling about. I didn’t remember them, but they remembered me. They left candles and gifts for me around my bed, kept a bell over their door so that I could let them know I had made it.
My guide bowed. Explained to these people, who must have been my family, that I was home. But I was tired.
The candles shed a warmth even I could feel, the aromas of herbs and good food reached me, merry voices carried on a cool breeze. I lay in my own bed, surrounded by my own things, and finally rested.
Students 6th-12th Grades