How long had I been walking? Counting the nights, it should have been three days – but it felt much longer. My garment had lost its impeccable lilac color, the soft tones fading away under a layer of sand and dirt. Sweat plastered my hair to my scalp and neck, the weight of my waterlogged locks pulling on me. My cracked lips stung each time a breeze struck them, the skin on the back of my hands was starting to peel. I felt a throbbing ache all throughout my body, particularly in my calves, an ache which threatened to make me collapse to the ground whenever I took a step. I felt dirty and sweaty and generally uncomfortable under my clothes, feeling the accumulated grime of three days on my skin.
These were sensations I was used to. For years I had lived my daily life in similar conditions. These sensations were like an old, forgotten friend – they held for me some nostalgic value, but mainly I just wanted them to stop bothering me.
Still, these factors were not what most troubled me – my long acquaintance with them had long since rendered them little more than minor nuisances. Nor was it the distance and time that I had travelled – a three-day-long march was nothing new for me. The hunger, that was a little annoying; but it was bearable – I had experienced similar when sitting through a siege. No, what truly bothered me was thirst. I had not had anything to drink for those three days, and it was beginning to take its toll on my body. My muscles refused to cooperate, my consciousness grew faint in spells, my throat felt as dry as a desert scorched by magical fire. The thirst became a voice constantly whispering to me to give up, to stop and rest and wait for rain, rain that did not seem likely to come. A voice that constantly urged me to curl up and just waste away, a voice that took the strength from my legs and channeled it into a nagging awareness of my parched throat.
I had only three options available to me: the first, to find a traveller on the road and ask to share their drink. The second, to find a village and seek help there. The third, to hope for a bout of rainfall. The first was unlikely – three days without coming across a single person or carriage meant that this was an infrequently travelled road. So relying on that would be wishful thinking. The third would be slightly less unlikely under ordinary circumstances, but there had been not a single drop of rain for the last three days – and, by the look of the landscape around me, for quite a bit longer than that. Flanking the road on which I walked, fields of shriveled plants decorated the cracked earth. Far as I could see in any direction, there was not a single green plant. The land was likely experiencing a drought – a protracted one, from the looks of it.
So meeting another person on the road was unlikely, and hoping for rain would be an exercise in both faith and futility. The only logical route left was to find a village. But that was easier said than done. I had no idea where I was; I had no idea what kinds of settlements lay around me. This road could go on for hundreds of kilometers, or it could end right after cresting the next hill – I could not know. As I continued to trudge my way forward, the urge to succumb to despair grew in me. Why did I keep walking? I was supposed to be dead, anyway, so what did it matter if I died here and now, without taking another step, without accomplishing anything? Sure, I had come here in search of something, but did it really matter when I couldn’t even remember what – or who – it was? If it was someone I could so easily forget, did it really matter? Thoughts like these echoed in my head, threatened to overwhelm me.
But just as I was on the verge of giving in to my weakness, fighting with all my strength to continue walking, I heard the clopping of hooves and rush of wheels against the ground. I looked up and squinted, catching the glimpse of something in the distance – a horse-driven cart, headed towards me, kicking up a cloud of dust.
I stopped in my tracks, falling to my knees. As the cart approached, the driver – a beautiful blue-eyed, brown-haired woman wearing a heavy brown cloak that obscured her figure – pulled on the reins of her horses, slowing to a halt. She called out something that I didn’t quite catch. I looked up and noted that her face showed concern – was she perhaps asking after me? I didn’t know, but I decided to take the chance.
“Water… Do you have any water…?”
My voice, used for the first time in days, came out raspy and unclear as I choked on my words. The woman tilted her head in confusion. Perhaps she had been unable to decipher my plea through my ruined voice. I tried again, trying to sound as clear as was possible with a throat that was desperately in need of water.
Her look changed from one of confusion to one of puzzlement. She raised his hands helplessly and shrugged as she spoke in a language I couldn’t understand. That was when I realised the problem – a language barrier. A problem that I had not had to deal with in my previous world, but which was evidently now becoming an issue. Were I in a mental state less fueled by desperation, I would likely have cursed Yingquan for not informing me of this detail sooner, but I had not the time to engage in such frivolity. I sought out something in her cart that might help me illustrate, and laid eyes on a barrel sitting in the back of the cart. Urgently, I pointed at the barrel, then at my throat, adding a rasping sound to try and emphasise my point. Understanding dawned on the woman’s face as she watched my pantomime, causing me to slump in relief.
Then she shook her head apologetically and my heart sank. I slumped on my haunches, ready to collapse on the ground, despair overtaking me. The woman gave me a troubled look, then waved her hand in front of my face to get my attention. I looked up to see her pointing at the road, in the direction from whence she had come – the direction in which I was headed. She made sure that I was looking at her, then pointed in that direction again and motioned with her fingers. A one and a zero. Ten. She was trying to tell me something lay ten units in that direction. Ten miles? Kilometers? Or some other unit of measurement? Who knew? And what lay there? An oasis? A village? A ruin? I had no way of knowing, but at this point, I was desperate enough to chase even the inkling of a chance. The woman helped me back on my feet, before she boarded her cart again. I nodded in gratitude, causing her to smile and call out something before she set off again. Purpose renewed, I began again on my long trek.
As it turned out, “ten” meant ten kilometers. It was only a short time after parting ways with the cart driver that I caught sight of a village in the distance. Ignoring the burning of my throat, fighting off the muscle aches, I forged forward, dragging my way into the village, one that – for some reason – had no guards. By the time I had entered the village, it was long past sunset, and most of the houses had lights shining through the windows – the streets were largely deserted.
Entering the village, I trodded through the streets, heading for the center – if there was a well in this village, that was where it would be. And there I found it – a stone well, covered by a wooden roof, a lamp illumnating the structure. I rushed to the well’s edge, my legs giving out as I approached. Unwilling to give up after coming so far, I used my arms to crawl the last five meters to the well, hooking them over the edge of the well and pushing myself up, that I might glimpse at my salvation.
…Empty. The well was empty. Dry. A simple look, aided by the lamp, was all I needed to know that such was the case. The bottom of the well was dry as could be – and judging by the layer of dust and cobwebs, had been for some time. I let go of the edge of the well, slumping down on the ground next to it, unable to move a muscle. My breathing grew weaker. So far, so much hardship, and yet the promise of salvation at the end was a lie. I would have laughed at the cruelty of it all had I the strength to do so. I felt myself drifting out of consciousness.
I guess this is where I end, then. In a foreign land, surrounded by strangers, not knowing my purpose for being here. A bit like my home plane, come to think of it.
I closed my eyes and started to drift. I think I might have heard the brief pattering of footsteps. I felt something cold pass my lips – I didn’t know what it was, but by that point, I was too far gone to care. I let the darkness take me.