The sand was still. The air was dead, weighted down with almost palpable heat that scoured the lungs with each breath and made each step a silent struggle. Overhead, the sun blazed mercilessly.
The traveler carried methodically on.
He no longer noticed the sun, or the heat, or the sand beneath his feet. He'd been going for so long, he'd managed to pass through mere human exhaustion and into a state of resignation. There was no future. There was no past. Much of the time, he was fairly certain he was just imagining the present. The only hunger he felt was a minor inconvenience. He was never more than slightly parched, and though he was tired, he never felt the need for sleep. He walked on, through day and night and day again, as he always had and presumably always would.
Once upon a time, he had been searching for something. Once upon a time, he'd been driven on by the small, stubborn flicker of hope-
Things will get better. Things have to get better-
-But that was gone now. Lost in the sands, with everything else he'd had. He continued on through the desert, mindless, hopeless. No longer lost, simply there.
* * * * *
He barely noticed when the weight in his head changed. He stood a little straighter. The sun didn't seem to be quite as harsh.
He didn't notice the small, uplifting flutter in his chest: it flickered once, and then went silent. He didn't notice how much easier every step had gotten. It wasn't until his sandaled foot painfully made contact with something horrendously solid that a weak ray of curiosity broke through the fog.
He stumbled and fell face-first into the sand, where he lie for some time after.
Up, he thought eventually. I have to get up. Investigate.
It seemed like a good idea as any. He got up.
The thing he'd tripped over was the semi-buried, unidentifiable piece of statue. Up ahead, two pillars stood atop a sand-covered dais and loomed over him. Several large chunks of stone sat, half-buried in the sand around it. Memory sparked. He knew this, he just . . . couldn't . . . place it . . .
All the pieces had once belonged to the same statue. The shadow the pillars cast fell upon the head, which stuck face-out out of the ground.
The face of the statue was familiar, so, so familiar, but the traveler couldn't remember where he'd seen it before. He found himself unwilling to look it in the eyes. Its face was unpleasant. It sneered in its contempt of the world at large.
This is my world, it seemed to say. You're lucky I let you in.
The traveler's eyes slid to the plaque at the base of the statue's feet.
"Ye gods!" he said. "Of all the pompous, self-important-"
He was suddenly overcome with disgust. Whoever the statue was of wasn't worth the skin used to make them.
"You stupid, overblown, self-absorbed, idiot. You bastard!" He was shouting now. It came as a surprise, but he couldn't stop. The statue was glaring at him. For the first time in ages, he was mad.
"Blind, prideful, unrepentant, self-obsessed, inconsiderate-" He kicked the statue's face and sent another jolt up pain up his leg. He cursed, loudly. "I hate you!" he shouted. "I hate you! I hate-"
"Well," said an amused voice behind him. "I'd no idea you felt so strongly."
He whirled around and found a woman watching him. There was something distinctly catlike about her, though he couldn't put down what, exactly, it was. Maybe it was her slightly slanted, too-wide eyes. Maybe it was the air of good natured contempt she cast out in waves. Maybe it was the smile.
Yes, he thought. It's the smile.
"Who are you?" he said.
"Nobody important," she said loftily. "Don't you remember?"
He shook his head. "No," he said. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember anything."
She gestured to the statue's head. "You remember him."
"No," he said again. "I just don't like him."
"Hmm," she said. "Interesting."
A small breeze picked up, sending her pitch-black hair into motion, twisting and writhing like snakes. There was something wrong with it, but he couldn't figure out what.
"Do you know why you're out here?'
"No," he said again. "I don't remember anything. "
"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "The desert does that. Almost as good as the ocean." She absently scratched the bottom of her chin.
"What about you?" she said. "Who do you think you are?"
"I don't know," he said. "I haven't really done much thinking lately." He nervously scratched his head. It had finally occurred to him what was off: the wind was going towards the east. Her hair was most definitely blowing towards the west.
"Not an answer," she said. "At least, not one I was looking for. Who do you think you are? What do you think you are?"
He found himself unable to meet her gaze.
"I think. . ." He turned to see the statue's face once more. "I think I've made a mistake." His face burned with shame. "I think I'm sorry."
Neither said anything. For a long while, the only noise was the sound of the wind rolling across sand.
"You know what I think?" she said eventually. "I think you may have learned your lesson." The wind picked up, stronger than before. "You're getting another shot. Don't waste it."
He was about to ask her what she meant when someone tapped his shoulder.
"Sir?" said a once-familiar voice behind him.
The traveler had to stop himself from screaming.
"Gaius?" he said. He looked around frantically.
Gone were his threadbare, desert worn clothes. Now he wore lavishly embroidered robes. His hands flew to his face. His hair was cropped. He was clean shaven.
Gaius the scribe watched in astonishment as the man before him gazed out at the imperial gardens as though he'd never seen them before in his life. He looked to see if he was missing something. Birds were chittering busily in the lush fruit trees that ringed the pavilion. Water was gently babbling in the fountains. The flowers were in bloom.
It all looked normal to him.
"Sir, are you alright?"
"Yes!" He caught the look Gaius was giving him and quickly composed himself. "I mean,yes. Yes, I'm fine." He looked at the statue standing behind him. It stood new and whole and confident in the very center of the pavilion, brandishing a sword in its war against the world at large.
"Gaius? Have that taken down. Pay the artistian, of course, but get rid of it. Grind it into sand. Melt the plaque." Gaius saw him barely suppress a shudder. "Please do it quickly."
The scribe nodded anxiously. Although he was used to spur-of-the-moment commands and thoughtless orders, he wasn't used to the lord saying 'please'. Or paying the workers, come to think of it.
"Anything else, sir?"
The lord shook his head. "I just need to. . . to go home. Home. My home."
He smiled. Gaius had never seen him smile before. Not once in almost twenty years of service. Before he could ask again if everything was alright, the lord hurried away, a slight bounce to his step.
Gaius watched him go and smiled for reasons he couldn't put a name to. He looked up at the cold, merciless face of the statue slated for destruction, and read the plaque aloud to himself.
He shook his head and thought of the way the lord had been staring vacantly at the plaque earlier. Gaius had spent almost twenty minutes trying to get his attention before daring to touch him. He thought of the lord's face when he'd seen him.
It doesn't look anything like him! he realized. It had when it was built, it had that morning when they'd put it up, but not anymore. Something had changed. Gaius was sure something had changed. He just didn't know what.
Frowning slightly, Gaius shrugged it off as a bad job, and went to go inform the workers of the lords plans for the statue. He couldn't say he was sorry for the loss: he'd never liked the statue, even as it was still being built. He left the contemptuous statue behind.
It really didn't look like him, anyways.