The Well of Weeping

“I watched him go. It wasn’t a glorious send-off like the one I’d imagined, a ring of flames soaring to the sky as the world faded in their wake. No, it was swift and painful, to him and me. The void his departure left was impenetrable and for weeks, months, years even, I wandered through the motions of daily life. It was bland, colourless and uninspiring. My journey brought me here, not through any desire to find this place, nor to meet your people. It was just where my feet led me. And I trust my feet. He taught me to.”

 

Nasheema stood in the centre of the amphitheatre, looking at the tiers of faces. There might have been sympathy in their eyes, but it may only have been her expectation to find emotion there.

 

“What do you wish to know?” asked one of the council who sat before her.

 

“Where he went. He promised he’d stay with me until I died. He wouldn’t leave me, I know he wouldn’t.”

 

“We can help you find what happened to him,” said another.

 

“What must I do?”

 

Muffled murmurs broke out, words lost in their voluminous manes. After several minutes, the panel rose to their feet. Silence filled the chamber, and Nasheema felt as though her head might implode with the weight of it.

 

“If you will go to The Well of Weeping, draw a sample of the waters and bring it back here, then we will discover what happened to your brother.”

 

“He’s not my brother.” Nasheema’s face reddened. “He was my friend.”

 

“To us, a friend beyond friendship is a brother.”

 

Nasheema nodded. Procreation was all done in laboratories for this species. The concept of a lover was as alien to them as her human form.

 

“Where is The Well of Weeping?”

 

“In the desert. We cannot venture there, the air is too arid and our lungs too weak.”

 

“Is that the only direction you can give?”

 

“Yes,” all three members of the panel announced as one.

 

Nasheema nodded again, taking the flask they offered.

 

“Store the water in that. It is the only vessel strong enough to contain it.” After a pause, he continued. “What will you do with the information we give you?”

 

“I’ll find him,” she returned simply. “And I’ll give him the ending he deserved.”

 

“Unlike you, we do not seek war and glory, but we will honour our word to you. It’s not in our culture to condemn others.”

 

Trying to take the words as the comfort they were meant, Nasheema followed the same guide who had shown her into The Domed City. The castle was airlocked, the weak-lunged inhabitants unable to breathe the Earth’s atmosphere.

 

They had arrived a hundred years ago. Nasheema had always felt a certain intrigue towards them. Of the fourteen sentient lifeforms on Earth, they were the most isolated, the most insular. She had never seen them until she arrived, exhausted and desperate, at the airlock.

 

In archives this city was referenced as Khartoum, renowned for raising heroes. Nasheema loved history, but she had allowed herself to sink so far into the past that the future seemed almost unobtainable.

 

True to her word, Nasheema walked out into the desert, seeking for the mystical Well of Weeping. She knew it from bedtime stories spoken over her cradle. It was a place of promise, but with a price to pay. Great men had stepped away from its mysterious presence, strong, knowing and regal. But they had all lost something of who they had been.

 

It didn’t frighten her. She wondered what she would lose in order to gain the well’s water. Or perhaps it was only if you drank from the well.

 

Nasheema had been in the wilderness of the desert for three days, walking in the darkness as much as the light to avoid the sun at its highest point. She carried all her belongings. Every terrain she passed through, wandering aimlessly, she traded objects she no longer needed. Only two items had remained with her constantly, her amber ring and her whistle. Everything else had belonged to someone else first.

 

The raging sun sank behind the sandy landscape. There were distant sounds of scurrying feet, and a scuttling close to her reminded her to fasten her boots. Scorpions were one of the biggest threats to unwary travellers and, whatever loss she had suffered, she had no intention of letting herself follow the same path.

 

In the dark, the landscape looked entirely different, but the true difference was in the sky. All the stars of the galaxy were there, lazily moving across the heavens, taking their turn to hold centre stage before they sank to the west. This continuous movement told her where the compass points were. But what use was a compass when you didn’t know where you were heading?

 

For the first time since Jedidiah’s departure, Nasheema rested the whistle on her lip, setting her fingers over its uneven holes. She closed her eyes and listened to the notes which flew free. The landscape became silent, shocked by this new call, trying to resolve whether it was prey or predator.

 

She stood in the centre of emptiness, on the platform of earth, at the feet of the universe, and felt a strange sensation pass over her. The stale air became sweet and she could taste nectar on her tongue as she slipped the whistle back into her pocket. Something heavy was slipping down her face, creeping towards her chin. She lifted her hand to brush it away, but stopped as the air seemed to double in temperature. Her breath caught in her throat and, instead of wiping her face, she stifled a cough.

 

The weighty object dropped, and Nasheema realised it was a tear. It fell to the grainy ground, watering land so unused to precipitation, and sinking amongst the sand. She lost sight of it almost at once, but more took its place. Her eyes felt ablaze, and she pulled off her fingerless gloves, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.

 

The moment her eyes were covered, she felt the ground begin to give way. The watered land had become swampy, like the hollow sinking sands to the east. Nasheema reached out and snatched at her discarded gloves, willing them to become animated and free her from this horror which had now devoured up to her hips. But the gloves were lifeless, a cruelty disguised as salvation.

 

She screamed, scattering scurrying sounds in all directions. But the sands had taken her waist, and her feet were numb. It closed in around her chest, stealing the breath from her lungs, and her screams died in her throat as she was crushed beneath the sand.

 

Opening her eyes, Nasheema was surprised to find she was still breathing. The air was sweet, as she had tasted in the desert. Like nectar, she had thought. But now she couldn’t remember what nectar was. Her mind was confused, and she began to question whether she was really alive. Resting her fingertips on her neck, her heartbeat suddenly boomed into her ears. As she lifted her fingers away, the sound of water overtook her pulse.

 

She was in a tunnel, only just tall enough for her to crawl through. It was a circle, as wide in diameter as it was high, and at one end there was a faint glimmer of light. The walls were wet, and there was no opening through which she could have fallen.

 

Encouraged by the light, Nasheema crawled forward. The tunnel twisted in gradual bends and, each time she turned, the light grew. It was reflecting off the damp walls, gathering intensity until she was surrounded by the mystical glow, and only she cast shadows in it.

 

She had lost all sense of time and direction in the unchanging tunnels but, for the first time since entering this strange infrastructure, there was a different noise. The sound of running water had been getting louder and louder but now something else had joined it. Something was whistling, not shrill like her own whistle, but deep, rich and resonant. The tunnel around her trembled with its exuberance and purity.

 

Nasheema paused, unsure by this new sound. It was not just that the walls shook, it was also a respectful fear of the creature which could produce this noise. She had met most of the sentient creatures upon the earth, but this was new to her. But surely it couldn’t be a mindless beast. The sound was beautiful and vibrated with emotion.

 

She followed the bend in the tunnel and stared at the opening before her. It was as perfectly circular as the rest of her route and through it she could see the same guiding blue light. She crawled to the edge and stared down.

 

Far below her ran a stream which radiated the beams of brilliant light. Her eyes tried to calculate the distance down, but all her brain would tell her was that she wouldn’t survive the drop. Nasheema lay on her stomach and peered over.

 

The walls of the cave were littered with identical openings, but there was no one else to be seen. She looked into each one, trying to find whatever had been whistling, but there was no sign of life besides herself.

 

“Don’t be fooled,” someone laughed. “Where there’s water, there’s life. Always.”

 

“Hello?” Nasheema asked, unsure where the voice had come from. She turned to look behind her, but a deep rumbling echoed through the cavern, causing the rock to tremble. She tumbled out of the opening and felt herself falling.

 

She didn’t scream. She just thought about Jedidiah, lifting the child to safety as the slag from the mine closed around him. Had he felt fear? He never showed it, rescuing the young miner from his own suffocating death.

 

Anticipating her impact with the ground, her stomach clenched and her head went light. But instead something soft closed about her. A burbling stream of notes rang through the air, and she opened her eyes, preparing herself for whatever awaited her. But, in all her wanderings of the planet, nothing had prepared Nasheema for this image.

 

She was being held in a fingerless hand, covered in mossy grass. Its owner towered over her, not humanoid but serpentine, like a giant worm, but it had a broad ruff at its invisible neck. Its eyes were as big as her head and, as it twisted its coiled body forward to study her, Nasheema leaned away. She reached for her gun but stopped as it opened its colossal mouth and angry fire burnt in its throat. She lifted her hands peaceably, and the creature closed its mouth, setting her on the floor of the cavern and propelling itself down a tunnel. Its appendages tucked in neatly as it disappeared.

 

“A dragon?” Nasheema muttered. “That’s not possible.”

 

“Why? Because you’ve never seen one?”

 

She turned in surprise and found four hooded figures walking towards her. There was no wonder she hadn’t seen them before, for they wore cloaks like stone and masks of bark. Their feet left puddles of water and their eyes burnt.

 

“It’s not a dragon,” spoke another.

 

“It’s so much more,” the third added.

 

“Why have you come to The Well of Weeping?” asked the fourth.

 

They stood in an arc before her, awaiting her answer. They weren’t armed, looking more like clerics, but she wasn’t fooled by their apparent gentleness. The only fight she had ever lost had been because she trusted someone’s appearance. She wouldn’t let the same thing happen again.

 

“I didn’t know this was The Well of Weeping.”

 

“You didn’t come here by accident,” stated the first.

 

“No,” agreed the second and third.

 

“I watched you go,” added the fourth, and Nasheema shivered. “Not as glorious as I’d imagined. It was swift and painful.”

 

“Stop it,” Nasheema panted, recognising her own words.

 

“You carry evil into this place. Evil and destruction.”

 

She turned back to the first figure as it spoke, pulling its hands from its sleeves. She was surprised to see human skin there, as dark as her own.

 

“I didn’t mean to bring harm,” she protested.

 

“Your journey brought you here,” snapped the first speaker. “Not through any desire to find this place.”

 

“Nor to meet these people,” agreed the second.

 

“It is just where your feet led you,” mimicked the third.

 

“Stop it!” Nasheema shouted, hearing the speech she had offered so many times as she meandered aimlessly across the Earth’s surface, seeking work where she could find it and hiding her morals behind her failure to seize Jedidiah’s hand. She had started and ended wars with that speech. Wars between races, wars within races. Accepting money for such ventures, trying to buy her freedom from guilt.

 

“And you trust your feet,” stated the fourth. “I taught you to.”

 

“What?” Nasheema demanded, watching as each of them lifted their hands to their masks. They pulled the bark faces down and she stumbled back. “Don’t! I don’t want to see you.”

 

She stared at the people who unmasked themselves. The first towered above the others, his black skin gleaming in the peculiar blue light. The second had tanned features and pronounced cheekbones which made her look as though she was laughing. The third had an oriental appearance, her long black hair rippling down as she lowered her face to study Nasheema.

 

But Nasheema was staring at the fourth figure. It was his appearance which had caused her knees to buckle. She knelt upon the cavern’s floor and shook her head.

 

“It’s not possible,” she muttered repeatedly. “It can’t be you.”

 

His green eyes narrowed slightly, and the corners of his mouth twitched upward as he tried to smile.

 

“You were taken,” she continued. “Swallowed by the earth. You died.”

 

“Why have you come here?” asked the first. “Why do you come to destroy?”

 

“She doesn’t know,” the second explained. “Look at her eyes. She doesn’t know why she’s here.”

 

“I came in exchange for news of you.” She pointed across at the fourth person. “They promised me news. Don’t you remember?” Nasheema whispered, trying to stop the tears which threatened to spill. “Don’t you remember me?”

 

Jedidiah cocked his head to one side and shook his head slightly.

 

“Who are you all?” she demanded. “What was that creature?”

 

“You called it a dragon,” the third began, “as my people knew it throughout time. But it is present in the mythology of all human cultures. It’s what powers the world, spins it on its axis and guides it through space.”

 

“We are the guardians of The Well of Weeping,” the first continued. “Collected by the Named One as the elements claimed us.”

 

“You’re human.”

 

“We were,” the second explained. “But what you have brought here is not of this world. You cannot place it in The Well of Weeping.”

 

“Why?” Nasheema asked, pulling the flask from the side pocket of her rucksack. As one, the four armed themselves with impossible blades formed from light.

 

“If you place that flask in The Well of Weeping, you’ll corrupt the water,” Jedidiah said, gripping the hilt of his green-bladed sword. “Have you seen what it’s made of?”

 

Nasheema looked at the flask and shrugged her shoulders. It was some sort of animal skin, unsurprisingly since the levy on plastics was beyond the cost of almost all the world’s population.

 

“It’s just a flask.”

 

Jedidiah shook his head. “It’s a skin. If you dip it into the light water you’ll give it life. Where there’s water, there’s life. Always.”

 

“Stop using his words,” Nasheema growled. “Either you are him and you remember, or you’re not and you have no right to use them.”

 

“That flask will become a living thing,” the second explained. “It will feed the parasites which live within The Domed City, and the earth will be tainted and spoilt. The dragon, as you call it, will die.”

 

“Didn’t you wonder how you gained admittance to The Domed City, when others have constantly been denied an audience? But you, a mercenary who would do anything for money, who valued life so little, made the perfect tool.” The first man lowered the blue sword he held. “They knew you would not question these actions.”

 

“I didn’t do this for money,” Nasheema snapped back.

 

“Enough!” growled the third, pointing her red blade forward. “There’s only one way to end this. The swords of wind and fire, earth and water must pierce the skin before it can reach the water of the well.”

 

“Will someone explain this to me?” Nasheema began, but she felt the flask in her hand twist as the inanimate object came to life, lurching towards the water. It dragged her forward, trying to find a way beyond the weapons. But, while it was deflated and slim, its host was too wide to fit between the blades. Nasheema felt a tornado strike her left side while fire burnt at her right. Letting go of the vessel, she collapsed to the ground, her vision blurring in yellow and red light.

 

Nasheema lunged forward as she woke up. She couldn’t remember how much had been a dream and how much had been reality. Clutching her head she stared around her. High above, the night sky lit up the heavens with stars brighter than ever before.

 

She was sitting on the sand, away from the cavern, the dragon, the well and the guardians. Perhaps it had all been a dream. It was certainly easier to describe it that way. But there had been Jedidiah, too.

 

“Did you mean what you said?”

 

She turned, scrambling to her feet as she realised she was not alone. The four guardians stood there, their weapons gone, and their masks replaced. But, though their words were monotonous and identical, she was certain it was Jedidiah who had spoken.

 

“Which bit?”

 

“Bland, colourless and uninspiring?”

 

“Every word. How can you not remember, Jedidiah?”

 

“Now I’m here,” came the whispered reply. “I think I can.”

 

Nasheema didn’t question him any further, but began the journey back to The Domed City. Her four companions disappeared for hours at a time, only to reappear later, stepping through the landscape as though it could be torn like paper. The flask she had been given was full, but she couldn’t remember filling it. She began to suspect the guardians only followed her because she was succeeding in her mission and they intended to ensure she failed.

 

It was true, there was something about the creatures she had met in The Domed City which she felt unsure about. But others, including humans, had been secretive and shady in the past. And as long as they delivered the reward, why should she care what their motives were? They were categorised as sentient beings, that meant they were expected to abide by earth’s ethical code, and Nasheema had become little more than a mercenary, performing deeds which enabled others to maintain their ethical code. She wasn’t proud of it but, since Jedidiah’s departure, she had lost any sense of pride and humanity.

 

By the third evening, she pulled out her compass. She was entirely lost. The red-tipped arrow dutifully pointed north, but the dunes around her had shifted since she left, and nowhere looked familiar.

 

“Let me help you.”

 

She turned to find one of the guardians standing there, the one with the yellow sword.

 

“Who are you?” Nasheema asked, watching as the other woman took the compass and blew upon it. The red arrow spun anti-clockwise until it pointed in a direction it had previously indicated was east.

 

“My name was Rising Eagle.” She handed the compass back. “I lived once, as you do now. A long way from here, as far in years as it is in distance. But I only remember it when I come back to this coritude.”

 

“Coritude?” Nasheema echoed, walking in the direction the arrow pointed and never questioning the possibility it was wrong.

 

“The Earth is a sphere, and exists in three dimensions: longitude, latitude and coritude.”

 

“The distance from the core?” Nasheema asked. She was met with a nod. Without checking her words, she continued. “Is Jedidiah gone, then? Can he never come back?”

 

“He is back now,” Rising Eagle answered. “But none of us can sever our bond with the Named One. It will choose another when it wishes us to find rest. Look,” she said, pointing to the horizon where the glass dome of the city reflected the stars above. “We’ve found it.”

 

“You’ll see strange things here,” continued the man with the blue sword. “You’ve been gone longer than you might believe.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It was the greatest gift I could give you, Nasheema,” Jedidiah answered.

 

“Let’s see if they will let us in,” said the woman with the red sword. “Or if we have to let ourselves in.”

 

Nasheema didn’t understand anything the guardians had told her. Anything, this is, except for Rising Eagle’s words concerning Jedidiah. She had lost him for good. Although he walked beside her, his fingers occasionally glancing across her own hand in a manner any of the others might have believed was accidental, he was beyond her now. Somehow, it only made his departure harder to bear.

 

The guardians disappeared again as she reached The Domed City. The panels of glass, reinforced to protect the inhabitants, felt cold as she reached out and rested her hand on them.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Who am I?” Nasheema retorted as a face appeared beyond the glass pane. It was maned, and tanned, but there was something different about him. “Who are you?”

 

“I’m the gatekeeper. What’s your purpose in coming here?”

 

“I brought you back the flask.” The doubt at the back of her head clawed at her skull. Something was wrong with the person before her, but she couldn’t tell what. “I’ve been to The Well of Weeping.”

 

She was greeted by silence, before a whispered murmur purred through the intercom.

 

“That’s not possible.”

 

“What?”

 

“That was twenty years ago. We believed you had died. I was a child when you left.”

 

She listened as the first door of the airlock pinged open. Nasheema stepped through, closing the door behind her and listened as it locked, before the inner door opened. She stepped into the city and frowned as she found a gun pointing directly into her face.

 

“Give me the flask,” the gatekeeper demanded. “I’ll take it.”

 

“No.” Nasheema only gripped the flask tighter. This wasn’t the first time she had faced such a reception. “I was sent out from the amphitheatre. I intend to carry it back there.”

 

Her guide sneered slightly but lowered the gun and led her through the streets. It was quiet. The buildings suggested two hundred years had passed rather than twenty. Cracks like veins ran from top to bottom of the large stone structures, corners had disintegrated completely, some walls had even collapsed.

 

The amphitheatre loomed before her, climbing almost as high as the starlit dome overhead. It also looked neglected and, as she stepped into the building, it was to find it dark and empty.

 

“Where’s the council?” Nasheema asked. Even in the darkest hours the council maintained their presence in the halls.

 

“Do you mock us?” came the angry reply. “Surely you know what came from your silence.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The Alderman looked into space and found you had deceived us. Civil war broke out, and now only the Order of Jericho has survived.” He lifted his gun and pointed it at her. “Why did you deceive us?”

 

Nasheema realised, as she stared down at the gun, what was different. He was smaller. Too small to belong to this species. They were tall and proud. But he looked short, pale, and hunched.

 

“You’re not one of them,” she breathed. “What are the Order of Jericho?”

 

“They’re parasites,” came the reassuring sound of one of the guardians, and he stepped into existence. He gripped his blue sword and pointed towards the Gatekeeper as the other three appeared around her. “They’ve consumed the race who lived within The Domed City, and exist now as a poor image of them. Lesser creatures of their sentient hosts.”

 

“Give me the flask,” demanded the gatekeeper.

 

Nasheema lifted the vessel and stared doubtfully at it while the creature did the same.

 

“If you had completed the task we set,” snarled the angry parasite, its eyes studying her as though it was looking for a new host. “You wouldn’t be holding it as you are now.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“The skin of one of them,” Rising Eagle explained. “It would have inhabited the waters of The Well of Weeping, and all the people of the Earth would have become host to them.”

 

“And you,” the woman with the red sword added, pointed at Nasheema, “would have become one of them.”

 

“But the flask is full,” Nasheema said, looking down at it.

 

“But not with the light water,” Jedidiah said softly. “They corrupt everything, spreading hatred and pain to all they interact with. They must be stopped before they destroy all the sentient species of Earth, as they did those who once lived here.”

 

The creature growled, firing its gun at Jedidiah, but his green sword only swallowed the gunfire.

 

“We don’t know how many of them there are,” the man with the blue sword began.

 

“You will never kill us all,” the creature replied, pointing the gun at Nasheema once more. “I shall possess her and see how readily you kill me then.”

 

Nasheema pulled away as the creature snatched at her throat, its claws cutting into her neck. She sighed as its touch caused her to become sleepy, each one of her thoughts melting into a dormant contentedness. Her eyelids dropped closed, but she blinked as a brilliant display of yellow and green, like a blooming spring morning, filled her vision.

 

Rising Eagle and Jedidiah knelt on either side of her, coaxing her to rise. The creature lay twisted and deformed at her feet. Two wounds punctured its body, one oozing a yellow light, the other green.

 

All of them turned as fierce scratching shook the timbers of the door.

 

“There’s only one way to kill them all,” Rising Eagle stated, talking more to Nasheema than the other guardians. “The four swords of the elements must destroy the host.”

 

“Me?” Nasheema whispered.

 

“No,” Jedidiah said with a smile. “The flask.”

 

Struggling to her feet, Nasheema nodded. It all made sense. Together they formed the world’s heart, green for earth, yellow for air, red for fire, and blue for water. They were the embodiment of the elements, and only they could protect the dragon, the heart of the planet, from this infestation.

 

“What can I do?” she asked Jedidiah.

 

“Hold it while we strike it. Once the water is emptied the walls of the Order of Jericho shall fall. And we can go back to The Well of Weeping.”

 

Nasheema snatched the flask to her as the doors trembled.

 

“I’ll lose you again.”

 

“You know where to find me,” Jedidiah replied. “You’re strong enough to find me when you need me. You’ve always been stronger than you knew. You have the strength to do this.”

 

She nodded, feeling his belief in her restore her determination. The door crashed open and dozens of mutated forms poured through as the Order of Jericho sought to bring down the Earth’s wall of resistance. Holding out the flask, but never taking her eyes from the hoard which rushed towards her, Nasheema’s vision flashed with a brilliant rainbow of colours. Water poured from the severed skin, sending refracted light streaming through the amphitheatre. The creatures writhed, melting into the floor, and the flask peeled back, dropping to the ground and dissolving in the water. The light faded and the chamber went dark and silent.

 

Nasheema watched as a whirlpool opened in the floor and the guardian of water disappeared. The guardian of fire followed, a pillar of orange flames consuming her and dragging her down into the ground. Afraid she was about to lose Jedidiah she snatched at him.

 

“We have to go, Nasheema,” Rising Eagle said softly. “We have our destiny as you have yours. But I believe you’ve found the answers you were promised.”

Nasheema nodded and watched as Rising Eagle disappeared in a tornado, the twister sucking her downward.

 

“I have to go,” Jedidiah whispered, kissing Nasheema’s hair as he held her tightly.

 

“What will I do? I don’t know what the world is anymore.”

 

“That child I saved, he’s a man now. He’s a great man, but he needs support. He needs your help. I’ve given you twenty years of anonymity. The world will have forgotten your crimes and your reputation. Begin again. It was the greatest gift I could give you, Nasheema. You’ve told so many people that the void my departure left was impenetrable, and for weeks, months, years even, you wandered through the motions of daily life. Now it’s time to live that life. Go and find him. He was worth saving.”

 

Nasheema closed her eyes, unwilling to watch as Jedidiah was swallowed once more by the earth. She felt him lift her hand, kissing it as he closed her fingers about a circular object. After a moment, she opened her eyes and found herself alone in both the hall, and the entire city. She looked down at her hand and the compass which rested there. The arrow pointed southwest, towards the place where Jedidiah had saved the boy so many years ago.

 

Walking through the timeless city, Nasheema discarded her gun and slotted the amber ring onto her finger. Her days of fighting were over. It was time to live.