In the desert of the F’kari, many blistering leagues south of the Kingdom of Jashandar, an Amian disciple was starting an adventure by dropping his travel bag on his cot and running to the window. This might, on the whole, seem counterproductive to the start of an adventure, but in this case it was not.
     In this case, the Amian disciple had heard something in the courtyard outside and was rushing to identify the source of the noise. Because if the something outside turned out to be the bad something that he feared—and there was every reason to believe that it was—his adventure would be over before it ever began. 
     Pushing back the shutters and shoving out his head, the disciple scanned the blurry shadows below for any sign of the bad thing strutting across the hardpan. If the bad thing were there, he would see its fluttering shape without the slightest complication and out the door he’d spring, racing down the hall and hurtling to the courtyard.
     As it turned out, though, the pre-dawn oblivion in the courtyard below appeared to be a bit drearier than usual, a tad more blurry than normal. It was almost as though he were trying to see without his—
     With an irritable groan, the disciple scrabbled at the pouch on his belt, withdrew something like a glass coin from its depths, and shoved it in his eye. He clenched down on the clear disc with his brow and cheekbone and quickly resumed his search.
     Now, thanks to the miracle of his seeing lens, the shadows below appeared much sharper and clearer and he could tell right away that he had absolutely no idea what was lurking therein. There might have been one of the winged monstrosities scratching about the fissures of the hardpan in search of yesterday’s feed, or there might have been nothing at all.
     He cocked his head to the side and listened. His eyes might be halfway to worthless, but his ears functioned like those of a panicked jackrabbit watching the shadow of a hawk pass across its glade—So keen, in fact, that he could hear the sound of a beetle chewing the pages of his Wogol from the other side of the dorm, a talent that had spurred his fellow parishioners to bestow upon him the honorary title of Bat Ears.
     But old Bat Ears, he thought, uneasily, leaning back from the windowsill and chalking the noise up to the wind, doesn’t hear a thing.
     The wind didn’t come much to the Valley of the Rock, but when it did come, the sound of sand blowing across the hardpan was very similar to the noise he had heard. Or it might have been one of the moon-skinks that inhabited the area. They, unlike the diurnal followers of Amontus, only came out in the cool of the night, and it wouldn’t have been the first time that one of them went skittering across the sill and scared him half to death.
     Now that he thought about it—now that his heart had stopped racing and his mind felt a little clearer—he thought the chances were good that the disturbance had been one of those scaly devils and not a roaming member of the barnyard community.
     But for how much longer? he chided himself, directing his monocle to the east and squinting at the soft yellow glow swelling in the sky. In the surrounding monastery, huddled black squares were emerging from the gloom and he could just make out the clay shingles and stucco walls. Further out in the F’kari, out in the flat reaches beyond the Rock, the cacti were taking on shape and giving dimension to the desert.
     Jamming the monocle in his hip-pouch, he spun towards the cot and uttered the world’s briefest prayer, something along the lines of, Oh great and mighty Owndiah, please close the beak of the cockerel as you did the mouths of the lions in the days of the prophets. Then, thinking better of the prayer, he added, Or you could stop the movement of the sun as you did in the time of Aemelaiesheth, back when the battle against the infidels raged on and the holy soldiers of Amontus needed additional light to take the victory. Either one would suffice.
     But had the disciple time enough to sit and reflect upon his Wogol studies, he would have realized that the prophets and soldiers benefiting from those miracles hadn’t been breaking any of Owndiah’s commandments at the time of the miracle. None of the prophets had been deceiving their brethren, none of the soldiers had been disobeying their leaders, and—without question—neither party had been disregarding the Time of Peace.
     The last faux pas was a biggie, he knew, but it wasn’t like he wanted to break the commandment. He wasn’t skipping the Time of Peace because he did not value his time of communion with Owndiah. He was skipping because he did not value the plethora of questions his brethren would ask at the sight of his travel pack. Owndiah might forgive at some point down the road, but he wasn’t so sure about the brethren.
     Dropping to his knees, he snatched his bag from the cot, held it to the edge of the mattress, and scraped the last of his possessions inside, slowing only as he came to a finely-polished flute and a leather-bound tome. The flute he slid in delicately to one side—hoping with all hope that it would be in one piece at the end of his journey—and the tome he placed on top of his belongings, a symbolic act of respect indicating that it came first in his life.
     With those two items carefully stowed, he grabbed two corners of the sack’s opening, drew them taut so as to tie them in place, and then stopped…
     He stared down at his hands as though he’d never seen them before, feeling like a man who’d just awoke from a very stressful dream.
     You know what this means, don’t you? You know what this might lead to, do you not?
     When he’d first read the mysterious letter lying on his nightstand, these were the thoughts that had danced in his mind, annoying mental gnats that he had dealt with by telling himself he had no choice in the matter. The information in the letter was dire, he had to respond immediately, and that was that.
     But now, as he stood mere moments away from charging out the door and making real those great and awesome consequences, the mental gnats had swelled to the size of buzzards, and they were circling him. And the scrawl he had read in the mysterious letter looked very distant and faded, indeed.
     Forever’s a long time, he thought, and dropped the folds of the knapsack.
     He turned to face his room and felt like he did at the many funerals he and his brethren oversaw for the local peasants: the numbness in his cheeks, the quiescence in the walls, the negative emotions in his heart growing brittle and cold.
     His eyes flitted to the corner where a wooden table had been shoved back as far as it could go, its position in the room giving the impression that its owners had not been very fond of it. The table’s splintered surface—bare save for the solitary figure standing at its center—gave a similar impression.
     The figure—or figurine, as it were—was of a bearded man in a set of beggar’s robes. He had his head bowed to the ground and his arms thrust to Glory. At first glance, he appeared to be deep in the throes of supplication, but this notion quickly passed as the beholder took notice of the short-handled scythe in his left hand and the squirming weasel in the other.
     The disciple’s eyes lingered on the weasel.
     The decision to take the sculpture with him had been considered—and rejected—on a number of occasions. For as much as he disliked the wretched thing, he had brought the abomination with him from his homeland. And now that he considered the matter, he thought it had been a gift as well—A gift from a family member.
     He could no longer remember which member of the family it had been, or why it had been given, but it did seem as though the figurine had been a gift. He wondered if it would be rude to leave the obscenity behind and decided, after much deliberation, that it would not. If he couldn’t remember the giver or the time of receipt, then the giver probably couldn’t remember giving it either and, after all, it was the thought that counted.
     There’s no room in the bag, anyway, he thought, and I wouldn’t want to break it.  
     He pried his eyes from the weasel and turned them to the wall between the table and the cot. There, a painting hung in the exact center of the wall, placed in such a manner as to imply that any deviation from this norm would result in its immediate ejection through the window.
     But that was only an implication and not a definite prediction, because unlike the hideous statue of the prophet and the weasel, the disciple liked the painting. Even now, he could feel it moving him on the inside, dispelling his stress and his panic and filling him with something he could only describe as perfect peace, or—as described by Amontus in the Words of Good Living—the peace that surpasseth all human understanding.
     Oh, yes, he thought, his eyes drinking from the paints, that’s the stuff.
     Having been scorched by desert temperatures and chiseled by blowing sands, this particular piece of artistry had faded much over the ages. Where once the colors had leapt from the canvas and came stabbing at the eyes, they were now lucky to muster a hop from the canvas, and if they were able to brush across the eyes, they considered the experienced time well spent.
     Still, the disciple had no trouble distinguishing the sleepy outline of four children as they skipped across the foreground. He could see that each child was holding hands with the child to their left or right and that each child was smiling like a fool.
     How they maintained this good cheer, however, the disciple did not know. The forest into which they skipped was a hulking mass of tearing, orange thorns and slanted, crimson eyes. What was more, the jagged mountain ranges jutting from the forest appeared to be nearly straight up and down. And the trail that ascended these peaks appeared narrow and winding and littered with boulders—precariously poised boulders. 
     Actually, the source of the kiddies’ confidence was not a mystery to the disciple. He could see that their heads were cocked back and their eyes were savoring the tasty yellow glow of the city above the mountains, the one that shined like the sun and that hovered in the clouds.
     The disciple felt a tear well in his eyes and wiped it away. He turned to the cot and took up the edges of his pack, tying the corners in a knot and thinking, for what felt like the hundredth time, that he was utterly and completely mad. He was leaving the place that he loved—the place where he felt whole—and he was venturing into a place of death and iniquity.
     And if anyone asked him why he was going—and he knew that they would, if he didn’t hurry—he would have to grin at them and scratch his head and tell them that he had read a mysterious letter from a man he had not seen in over ten ages and that, while reading the letter, he had felt a powerful feeling in his guts.
     His fingers slowed along the pack.
     You know, I could open this bag, he thought, numbly, staring at the folds. I could open it up, dump the contents, put everything back where it belonged, and tell the others I fell ill. Sure, I’d be lying like a fiend, and perhaps staying at a place of God would be pointless by then, but at least I’d be here! At least I’d be some place where the painting on the wall meant more than—
     At the window, a cockerel lit on the sill and began flapping its wings and bobbing its head. The disciple leapt—shrieking as he did—and took after it.  
     “Oh, no you don’t!” he cried, waving his arms. “No, no—Out! Out with you! Out you go!”
     The evil avian came alive, ruffling its feathers and clucking in surprise. The disciple flipped his hands at it and made all manner of terrified noises, but the crazed creature only jumped up and down and issued a series of its own terrified noises, trying wholeheartedly to peck off the disciple’s fingers. It was only after much praying and waving of hands that the disciple was able to persuade this Bringer of the Dawn to leave his window and return to the courtyard.
     The disciple stepped back and wiped his forehead.
     “Nicely done, Brother Brine,” said a female voice from vicinity of the hall.
     The disciple jerked around so quickly that his ponytail flew over his shoulder and slapped him in the chest. A figure stood in the doorway, one dressed in typical Amian robes—hood up, hem to the floor, hands tucked neatly inside the baggy sleeve of the opposite arm—and it was staring right through him.
     Cocking his head to one side and wrinkling up his face, Brother Brine said, “Sister Miriana?” Then, having the presence of mind to step in front of his bag, he added, “Is that you?
     The robed figure stepped inside. “There’s no fooling you, Brother Brine.”
     The tension drained from the disciple’s face and his grin took on a more natural cast. “It was your voice,” he lied, deciding not to disclose the fact that he could pick her lips out of a lineup. “I can…I hear very well, you know.”
     “Yes,” she said, “I know.”
     “I, uh…I thought I heard something before,” he went on. “In the courtyard.”
     “Yes,” he said, wringing his hands. “It was probably you.”
     The lips beneath the cowl grinned at him. “How are you, Brother Brine?”
     “Oh, I’m well. Well in his eyes, yes.” He stood there for a time, apparently trying to rub the skin from the backs of his hands, then remembered himself and said, “Oh, and you?—I’m sorry—Are you well? In his eyes…I mean.”
     Instead of answering, Miriana tipped forward her cowl and laid her hidden gaze on something at Brine’s waist. Following the trajectory of her hood, the disciple found his hands clutching at one another above the equator of his belt and quickly shoved them behind his back.
     Miriana’s grin became a smile. “May I come in, Brother Brine?”
     “Uhhhhh…must you?
     Heavy robes concealing her legs, Miriana seemed to float inside the dorm. “It feels empty in here,” she observed, cowl swinging left to right.
     “Well, that’s…that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Brine said. “Did He not say, in his Edict to the people of Nor, that we are to beware the allure of possessions, and that possessions are, in all actuality, the evil anchors to—”
     “—a wicked world,” Miriana finished. “Yes, I am familiar with the verse, Brother Brine.” She moved her cowl from the bed to her host. “Where is your flute?”
     Brine’s eyes bulged.
     “You never seem to stray very far without that evil anchor,” Miriana observed.
     “Well, it—it must be here.” Brine feigned a search of the barren floor.
     “Perhaps it’s in your bag.”
     Brine’s eyebrows exploded up his face.
     “The bag you were packing,” Miriana said, “while I watched from the hall.”
     Brine felt the grimace sinking into the muscles of his cheeks and was helpless to resist. Shaking his head with an insane rigidity, he said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Sister Miriana. I wasn’t packing. I was…I had…,” he stared at her, lips quivering, then had a thought. “Why aren’t you at the Time of Peace?”
     “I was,” Miriana said, taking a step towards him. “Why aren’t you?”
     Brother Brine’s finger was still up from where he’d been waggling it at her. He studied it stupidly, waiting for his panic-stricken mind to recover from its state and concoct a reasonable retort.
     “So,” Sister Miriana said, sounding as smug as she looked, “after you finish not packing, Brother Brine, where is it you’re not going?”
     And here we go, Brine thought, lowering his finger and lifting his eyes, all the horrible questions I was trying to avoid. Aloud, he said, “Just a trip.”
     “A trip,” Miriana mimed. “Right in the middle of your studies.”
     She had him there. No one—not even Amontus himself—had ever taken time off from their holy calling to engage in a vacation. It was going to be a first, to say the least.  
     “Did He not say,” Brine asked, sounding uncertain, “that man is meant for great deeds, but that man’s body is the, um…the temple of doing, and that this temple must be kept sound and shapely if he—”
     “Shapely?” Miriana challenged, cowl tilting forward as she presumably analyzed his sunken chest and distended belly.
     Sucking in his gut, Brine said, “Well, no, it’s…it’s more of a sabbatical than a workout, more of a break.” He grabbed at his pack.
     “And Father Boo?” Miriana demanded. “What does he think of this?”
     “Father Bhutaun,” Brine corrected, his mouth and mood dropping simultaneously, “is a sage—not an elder—and I don’t make it a habit of discussing matters of discipleship with sages. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s a good man—a kind man, but he’s…,” he shrugged regretfully, “…he’s not one of us. He doesn’t believe like us.”
     Miriana unfolded her arms. “Does he know?”
     Brine opened his mouth to tell her that no one knew—that he hadn’t known until yesterday, when he came back to his dorm and found the letter on his cot—but as he tried to enunciate this to his fellow disciple, the content of that letter came flooding back to him and he felt the words grow heavy on his tongue. 
     “I should be going,” he said, stepping around her.
     Miriana stepped in front of him and pulled back her hood, revealing a pair of wide and worried eyes. Seeing them, Brine knew he wouldn’t be able to leave without at least giving her something.
     But do I have time?
     He turned and squinted out the window, the eastern horizon yellowing as he watched. He could see the buildings of the monastery turning from shapeless black to murky brown.
     “I’m going north,” he said.
     Miriana’s face wrinkled with confusion. “North?” she asked. “Why in His name would you—” She gasped, the realization of what this meant settling in her mind. There were, of course, only so many places north of the F’kari—the ruined Kingdom of Lathia, a vacant sliver of the Uncharted, the ugly wilds of the Drugana, the mountainous jut of the Dead Lands—but only one of these places held any meaning for Brine.
     When the shock released her throat, she said, “You’re not going back, are you? Brine, tell me you’re not going back.”
     Directing his squint at the door, Brine said nothing and tried sidling around her.
     Cutting him off, Miriana said, “What about all the things you told me? All the horrible things you said.” Her face looked like it was melting. “The things in the ground—Crawling from the ground! And the trees! The place of bad trees!
     “Miriana,” he said, speaking in the clipped tones of one who’d heard enough. “I really have to go.” He pushed her aside and made his way for the door, stopping only as she grabbed his sleeve.
     He reeled on her, ready to have it out and explode, to break all creeds on wrath and profanity and, possibly, give rise to a whole new section in the Wogol. But then he saw her eyes…and realized she was crying.
     “Please, Brine,” she begged, “please don’t.”
     He felt the fire in his mind sputter and then die, the concrete in his face soften and dissolve.
     She doesn’t know, he told himself. She doesn’t know a thing and that’s why she’s questioning you, because she didn’t see the letter and she didn’t read the message. She’s just caught up in the symptoms, an unknowing participant in her own fear and frustration—Fear and frustration that you could dispel if only you’d tell her about the letter, and about how it made you feel, and about how it’s the same feeling from your dream…
     But he couldn’t do that. As unfair as it was to leave her drifting and afloat in the dark of her mind, he didn’t dare revisit the content of that letter, not until it was absolutely necessary to do so.
     He had told her about the dream, though, just as she’d told him everything about her life. It had been a long time ago, way back in the beginning of their stay, when they were both lonely and scared and in need of something stable, but he had told her.
     “It’s the dream,” he said flatly. “Do you remember the dream?”  
     Miriana stared at him, the heavy look in her eyes conceding that she did.
     He nodded, placing a hand on her shoulder. “This is it,” he said. “This is the thing in the dream, the thing I’ve been waiting for. It’s the same feeling, the same…,” his eyes drifted off and his head shook, perhaps in awe, “…the same powerful groaning, like a hungry bear. And I believe it’s Him, Miriana. It feels like Him, like He’s tugging at my insides. Like He wants me to go.”
     Through lips that looked numb, Miriana said, “What if you’re wrong?”
     Brine mustered a grin. “What if I’m right?”
     “But what if you’re wrong?
     He shrugged. “Then I’ll know right away, wont I? And you remember what Amontus said about purpose, right?” When she did not answer, he gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze.
     Miriana said, “That He provides.”
     “That He provides—” she coughed hoarsely, as if her words were poison “—for those seeking their purpose.”
     “See?” he said, still grinning. “If this isn’t it, if it’s not His purpose, then it’s bound to go bad and when it does…,” he shrugged, casually, “…I’ll come back.”
     Searching his eyes, she said, “And if it goes bad too fast?”
     His smugness faded. “Well, yes, I…I suppose that could happen, but…,” he trailed off, his squinting eyes travelling out the window to where the colorless plane was taking on a bluish tint.
     That isn’t good.
     He gave her shoulders another friendly squeeze and moved around her, moving to get ahead of the thing that would soon transpire in the courtyard below, the thing that was about to thoroughly complicate his life.
     “One last song?” she called.
     Brine stopped at the door, craning his head to the window and squinting at the dawn.
     Peering up at him through red and miserable eyes, Miriana said, “One song.”
     He moved his gaze to her…then released a sigh.
     He set the pack on the floor, slid out his flute, and began to play, blowing into the mouth piece even as the cockerel outside made its first call to the morning and the Time of Peace came to its usual end, releasing the sound of a hundred sandaled feet as they came thrumming from temple and into the courtyard.
      Outside, God’s army had ceased its praying and was setting out for the day, but on Brine played, moving his fingers the length of the shaft and watching in his mind’s eye as a myriad number of disciples met him along the path and asked him about his pack.
     But on he played...
     Not because of what he had shared with Sister Miriana, but because of where he was going, and because of what that might mean.