Boco huddled closer to Moogaloo and Ree’ku, trying to get warm. Who would have thought that desert nights could be so cold! He ruffled his wings, only to make himself more miserable by how dry and brittle they were. A few nights ago they were in Gridania. True, they had been prisoners. And – they had come very close to being executed as spies. Then, Ree-Ku had helped them make a daring escape. And, true, they had almost been recaptured.
“Hey, Loo, stop your teeth from chattering! The noise is driving me crazy,” rasped Ree’ku, their new Ixal friend. Normally they wouldn’t have understood him, but the power of the blue crystal in Ree’ku’s spear had somehow fixed that.
“Oh yeah? Well, Boco’s feathers keep scratching me!” replied Moogaloo. Boco craned his head to look, and sure enough the poor moogle’s usually white skin was rubbed a painful red.
“Well, maybe if you didn’t insist on riding me, you could walk in my shadow and not expose yourself to the sun so much!!”
“Will all of you just shut up! It’s a good thing Fire Sprites can’t hear, or we’d be burnt to a crisp right now!” shouted Perull Gah, who sat watch. S/he sat blocking the entrance to the small cave they sheltered in. Nearby, a sandworm crunched away at a century plant, standing five times taller than Ree’ku. Perull had assured them that sandworms kept a safe distance from rocks and cliffs. They were also vegetarians, s/he said, but that didn’t stop them from eating whatever wildlife got caught in their mouth. This did not reassure Moogaloo.
Boco wanted to sleep, but too much had happened. And now they were following an Amalj’aa – who had saved them from tumbling into a sandpool pit – who was taking them somewhere. S/he wouldn’t talk about it at all. With visions filled with foreboding, Boco finally fell asleep.
Perull Gah shook hisser head. I’m a hatchling fool. No, s/he thought, looking at hisser three strange new friends, we’re all fools. Days ago, I was enjoying my warrior training. Narujj Boh had said that I was destined for greatness. And then, while hunting anglers, I see a water sprite – a water sprite, in the middle of the desert.
And it gave me a vision. When I told Narujj Boh, s/he laughed and said I should not eat too much crazy cactus. But the vision was real, and the travellers are real. So I am here as well. Perull had walked into the desert for 3 days. Just as s/he had crested a dune ridge, there was a blinding blue flash, and s/he was knocked flat by the Ixal, the moogle and the chocobo. The three stumbled about, brushing the sand from their eyes, never noticing the swirling sands around their feet.
S/he roared at them, but either they were too preoccupied or their ears were full of sand. So, not knowing why, Perull began to khoomei, or throat-sing. S/he gave it an urgent sound, that of rocks falling. It shut them up, and finally they saw himmer.
S/he beckoned them to come to himmer. “Slowly,” said Perull. When they stood next to himmer, s/he pointed at the sandpool. “We need to go,” s/he said. And no one moved. “Now!”
Later, they told each other their stories. They knew nothing about the Amalj’aa, that much was certain. It had taken two days before they stopped trying to refer to himmer as male or female. Still, Perull Gah found himmerself liking them. Even if they did yell at each other a lot.
“Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a bowl of rolanberries and cream!” said Moogaloo, stretching. He stepped out into the blazing early morning sun, then thought better of it and sat back down in the shade.
“Shhhh,” admonished Ree’kuku’Noru, “Perull is meditating.”
Well, thought the one-winged moogle to himself, isn’t that a great waste of our time. Boco noticed his small friend’s scowl. And decided he should tell him the truth. Perull had confided in him earlier about several little-known facts about the Amalj’aa.
“Loo,” began Boco, “It isn’t really meditating. Not like Kan’E’Senna and Nyena practice. It’s more like…stoking a fire. The Amalj’aa are cold-blooded, and need the warmth of the sun for energy. Without it, they’d be unable to be active both day and night. “
Moogaloo left the shelter, and walked up to the still form of Perull. He jumped back when he saw that hisser eyes were open, but upon closer inspection saw a second, almost opaque eyelid covering them. He looked over the hard, almost chitinous skin, the rudimentary claws of the hands and feet. And most disturbing of all, no sign of gender identity.
Ree’ku watched as Loo went back to inspecting Perull Gah’s face.
“Boo,” said Perull, hisser eyelids snapping open. Ree’ku and Boco watched as their diminutive friend shrieked, lost his balance and fell on his moogle butt. “I do not know much about staring in your culture, but in mine it is considered a challenge,” the Amal’jaa said with a touch of sly humor.
As they convulsed with raucous laughter, Mogaloo looked ashamed. “Cut it out, you two!” Perull brought out a small skillet from hisser travel sack, and soon had a quick meal going. Boco and Ree’ku commented on how delicious it was, but Moogaloo said, “It tastes okay. A little too crunchy, and spicy. What are they?”
“They are called skreekrees. They are…what you heard last night. In the palm trees…singing beetles.” Moogaloo turned purple, and stayed very quiet for most of the morning.
They crossed endless yalms of sand. But Perull could see landmarks that none of the rest them could. Which was fortunate, thought Boco, since s/he knows where we’re going. Or so the chocobo believed.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” shouted Ree’ku.
“I know the path, but not what lies at the end of it,” Perull answered tersely, “because it is not anywhere the Amalj’aa know.”
They were all exhausted. A sudden sandstorm at dusk had forced them off course, according to Perull Gah, so that they could find shelter. The cave they found was big, but stank of carrion. Inside they found several bodies – Lalafells, Boco guessed. Outside their shelter, the hot wind howled.
“Oh, that’s just great,” cried Moogaloo, “Didn’t I say we couldn’t trust him…ah, her?”
“Himmer,” corrected Boco. “How do you know this, friend?”
Perull Gah’s temper had been about to flare, but when the chocobo called him ‘friend’ it vanished. “If such a place had been visited by the Amalj’aa, the Tale Spinners would have woven a story about it. I have heard none such tales.”
“S/he makes sense. It would be the same with our storytellers,” stated Ree’ku, “I believe himmer. Loo, be reasonable!”
“Sense? Who said anything about any of this making sense? We understand what each other is saying – impossible! We get whisked away by some weird blue light without our consent – impossible!” Moogaloo sighed. “I’m sorry. I really am. Perull, forgive me for wanting one single day to be normal for a change.”
“It is all right, little warrior. Now, get some rest. If this sandstorm ends soon, we will set out before the night gets too cold.”
Boco watched them get comfortable. Ree’ku had found a few small blankets, bloodstained but still useful. Not even Loo complained. Boco then sat down next to Perull. He apologized for Moogaloo’s behavior.
“No need,” said the Amal’jaa, smiling. “He is my tribal brother. No slight has been taken.”
“Yes, we are friends!” nodded Boco.
“You do not understand, Boco.” Perull’s voice took on a serious tone, as he said quietly, “Truly, you three are now my tribe, if you will accept me. Understand that in order to go on this – quest, you call it – I have missed the Amalj’aa rite of passage. I have disgraced the Brotherhood of Ash, my tribe. I cannot return.”
“That’s terrible!” said Boco. “Surely, there must be something we can do – someone we can talk to?”
“No,” responded Perull. And s/he stretched out to sleep.
We’ll see about that, thought Boco. And he, too, fell asleep.
They travelled for another 2 days. Boco wondered how Perull Gah knew when and where to turn – a single shrub would make him pause and consider their path. As they traversed the sands and rocky outcroppings of Sagolii, Perull taught Boco about desert life. Boco began to see it in a new light – not as a place devoid of life, but a landscape filled with unique and hardy creatures, who survived by taking advantage of all that was available to them. Almost everything Boco saw, from the largest plant to the smallest insect, had a use and a purpose. Sagolii had its dangers, but also possessed great beauty.
Ree’ku became moody and sullen one day. Boco found him talking with Perull. “What’s the matter, featherbrain?” asked Moogaloo, returning from gathering desert cactus. “You haven’t returned my insults for hours!”
“Our brother is worried about his…mother,” said the Amal’jaa, pausing before saying the last word.
“We could not warn her of Nezuul’s, or the Hunters’ Council’s plans,” answered Ree’ku, “and I fear her life is in great danger.”
“From everything you have told me, you have nothing to fear. S/he is…I am sorry, SHE is a very strong warrior, wise and wily.”
Ree’ku look at Perull, and then offered his foreclaw to the Amalj’aa, who gave his own clawed arm. Boco sensed that something important had just happened. He could not understand it, but it felt…hopeful.
“I am sure your mother is also a great warrior,” said the Ixal.
“We do not have mothers as you know them, Ree’ku. When the mating season begins, there is no outward change. Only when 6 moons have turned does an Amal’jaa show signs of carrying eggs. After the eggs are laid, the egg-layer leaves them, and does not return.”
Moogaloo looked alarmed. “I don’t understand. You mean, s/he leaves hisser children before they are even born? “
“You do not yet understand us,” cautioned Perull, “they are not anyone’s children. Hatchlings belong to the tribe. And to be worthy, they must survive as wildlings until their first skin-shedding. Only then are they taught the ways of Amalj’aa.”
They had not walked much further when Perull stopped them. “We wait here. This is where we must be.”
Boco looked around them. They were inside a wide, deep depression in the sand. Four dunes peaked in front of them, and a fifth off to the side. There was nothing else to see, anywhere. Boco turned around to look for a cave opening in the cliff walls, but the cliffs were nowhere to be seen.
Moogaloo was at his side, and looked up. “Something is odd about this place. It doesn’t feel…real!”
“What are you talking about?” asked Boco, ruffling his feathers in annoyance, and fear.
“Remember when Perull said it wasn’t anywhere the Amalj’aa had been? Well, it’s like that. As if it’s nowhere, and everywhere, all at once. Kupo! This place is scary!”
Perull Gah sat. “I suggest we all sit down. We must wait.”
“For what are we waiting?” asked Boco.
A water sprite appeared at the center of the dune basin. No sooner had it appeared, when it emitted a flash of bright blue light. The last thing Boco heard before everything changed was Loo, wearily saying, “Here we go again!”
The Desert was gone. The four looked around, and discovered that the basin was actually the palm of an enormous hand, and the five dune peaks were fingertips. Of the water sprite, there was no sign. Blackness surrounded them. The hand was lit by four moons in the sky.
A figure appeared between the thumb and forefinger, and walked slowly forward, until it stood at the head the wrist, which plummeted downwards into oblivion. It was a figure without a face, blacker than the darkness which surrounded it. It turned its head, and seemed to look right at them. It turned back, and began to speak in a voice colder than death.
“Witnesses. Mother – how very like you.” And then he laughed (the voice was definitely male.) “My godhood is nigh. You may, all of you, still join me. All we need do is manipulate our competition. Like so.”
Six Flamefang priests appeared out of nowhere, along with three fire beacons. On them appeared Ifrit’s name.
The palm was now filled with sand. “Summon your god,” commanded the Dark One. Boco didn’t know why that name fit, but it did.
The priests needed no prodding, but they were trembling as they chanted their invocation. “Cover your eyes,” Perull whispered quickly. They heard the explosion of flame just then, like a fireball hitting its mark. In the center of the three pillars, tall as a mountain – a fiery mountain – stood Ifrit. There was no sign of the six priests. “Blood sacrifice,” whispered Perull Gah, noticing Boco’s scrutiny, “It is why they always need recruits.” Moogaloo said, “Ifrit isn’t here. He is, but he isn’t- otherwise we’d have been incinerated, like the priests.”
“The Ice Queen awakens, O Lord of the Inferno, and would turn your world to ice.” Ifrit roared, and the hand quivered – or so it seemed. The Dark One continued, “She would extinguish your beacons, put out the fires in the deep earth. She would kill you! Will you allow this? “
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Ifrit’s anger burned so hotly that small cracks began to appear in the thumb.
“Hold!” shouted the Dark One.
“Madness! Cease this nonsense!” cried a voice from the blackness.
“He’ll destroy the nexus!” cried another.
“Impossible!” shouted a third.
“And why should I hold, you small speck of coal dust?” asked Ifrit.
“I can bring her to you, to the Bowl of Embers, where your power is great and hers is diminished. And I think it is time for you to gather your acolytes, and your strength.” The Dark One raised his arms.
Ifrit laughed. “Who are you, you worthless speck, to think you can dismiss me?”
“Someone far greater than you, spirit of fire. You may call me the Slayer!” And with a wave of his hands, Ifrit soundlessly vanished. The Slayer turned away from the palm, which was empty of beacons, sand and spirit.
“So you begin again. Such arrogance! Such childishness!”
“Yes, Mother,” said the Slayer. “The war of the Primals has begun. When their Gods have destroyed each other, leaving only one, I will have enough power to kill it. And then we can step in, and be Gods once more.”
“Enough. Begone, Slayer, as you now call yourself. We have much to discuss.” And the darkest dark vanished, as many voices began to talk at once.
Then there was a flash of blue light, and they were back in the desert.
[ Thanks to Sod Ransom, Nyena Nosidam, and Vik Vicious for giving invaluable information]