He determined which rock formation was closest and clambered across the hot sand. He thought of his parents; father laying on the forest trail, yelling at him to run. He wished he’d had a chance to say sorry. And his mother, no doubt waiting anxiously at home for her boys. Sweat and tears stung his eyes.
Reaching a canyon wall he crouched and caught his breath. Running his hand along the wall, his fingers traced seams of a curious pink mineral that cut through the mustard stone.
A rock clattered, the sound ricocheting off the walls.
“Who’s there?” demanded Yuki. He heard rapid breathing. The head of an animal appeared from a ledge. Two large yellow eyes with small red pupils peered down at him. Yuki leaped to his feet. The creature scampered down an incline to where he stood. Shorter than Yuki’s knees in height, an animal with leathery purple skin darted back and forth on four stocky legs, wagging its tail. From its broad mouth flapped a large pink tongue. With a yap it turned and bounded off, pausing to look back at Yuki.
Yuki stared in disbelief. He looked back to the desert, then to the odd creature that scampered ahead. “Okay, well, I’m going to follow you now!” Yuki called out after it, and stepped into the maze of the canyon walls.
As he walked deeper into the canyon he saw signs of life. Mine carts, piles of rubble, and tunnels cut into the rock. Someone lives here, he thought.
Dusk had fallen when Yuki followed the creature up an incline. His water had run out; he’d collapse if he stopped. He saw steam escape from a hole in a wall ahead; crates, ropes, and tools stacked neatly against it. The creature disappeared into an open doorway.
“Snack!” a gravely voice exclaimed. The creature yapped in reply.
A stocky figure appeared silhouetted in the doorway and squinted at Yuki. This was an oman – sandblasted skin, broad features with large, sad eyes and a roughly shaven face; a little shorter than Yuki, but heavily built. A turban on his head was fastened with a polished pink stone.
“What do you want?” he challenged.
Yuki stumbled. Exhausted, all he could do was croak. The world spun and he collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
The oman, Ger al Ghul, raised an eyebrow. He stood over the boy. This must be a human, he thought. He’d been told stories but never seen one. It was forbidden to go near them, yet here one lay outside his home. He reached out with trepidation and prodded the boy – nothing happened. With a sigh he rubbed his hand over his stubble, grabbed Yuki by the arms and dragged him into his home.
From a deep sleep Yuki surfaced. His eyes focused on a rock ceiling and with a start he remembered where he was. He found himself alone. Scalded metal pans and blocks of dried food sat next to an old oven. A round stone table lay scattered with odds and ends. A large parchment map was nailed to the wall.
The steady clang of metal on rock reached his ears. He found a jug on the table with water and gulped it down. Then, nibbling on a piece of flat bread, he stumbled off in the direction of the hammering.
Yuki found the oman at work where the desert met the rock. Snack appeared to be chewing on a pile of stones. Ger al Ghul sweat profusely as his heavy frame drove a mattock into the rock wall. Seeing Yuki he stopped.
“Why are you here?” demanded Ger.
“Where… is here?” stammered Yuki.
Ger put his mattock down and clapped dust from his palms. “A long way from home,” he grunted, “this is the Sabassa.”
“The Sabassa?” replied Yuki.
“The Sabassa,” repeated Ger, “Grasslands,” he pointed to the west, “the sea,” he motioned to the east.
“I came from Hokkaido. My dad’s in serious trouble.”
Before Ger could reply his attention was diverted by a cloud of dust on the horizon. Snack stopped what it was doing and growled.
“The gesu,” Ger spat and turned to look at Yuki.”They will kill you if they find you. Get in that cart and don’t say a word,” he ordered.
Yuki did as he was told. From the darkness of the cart he heard the growing thud of beasts’ feet; the crack of whips, and the commotion of the caravan as it drew closer.
Snack leaped behind a pile of rubble and peered over it. Three omans, called the gesu, each rode upon a sawrus, four-legged beasts dragging bundles of cargo along the sand on ropes. The sawruses heads hung low to the ground, eyes dull and mouths agape. The gesu themselves were concealed behind black shrouds, small pink jewels affixed to their robes. They brought their sawruses to a halt in front of Ger.
“Gol!” the leader barked.
“Gesu el bat,” Ger completed the greeting.
“Your quota?” demanded the leader.
“I have five bundles gesu.”
“Five?” snorted the second-in-command, “Eight, oman. Your quota is eight.”
The leader dismounted. He approached slowly, until his shrouded face was inches from Ger’s.
“What do I tell the shook?” he whispered, “Would you like me to beg for his forgiveness?”
Ger stammered, “The mines gesu, they do not give so freely, I…”
“Fool!” the leader yelled. He swung his fist, striking Ger’s jaw so hard it knocked him onto his backside. The other two gesu sat back in their saddles, bemused.
Yuki lay in the dark cart, his wide eyes illuminated by the light that pierced through cracks.
“Bah!” spat the leader, “load it.”
“Yes gesu,” groaned Ger. He hobbled over to his bundles and carried them to the ropes.
The third gesu tossed a bundle of provisions into the sand and said: “A mine on the fringe was ransacked last night by the gabba. They took everything.”
“Broke the oman’s arms,” added the second.
“A thorn in our side for a thousand years…” continued the third.
“The shook will deal with it,” the leader cut them off as he remounted.
“Oman!” he commanded Ger, “Three suns, twelve bundles, or I will have your life.”
“Twelve!” exclaimed Ger, “Gesu, please…”
The leader cut him off. “You are too old oman. Prove to us you deserve this mine or we will give it to someone else.” He didn’t wait for a reply. The caravan lurched and returned to the desert.
“It is safe,” said Ger once they had gone.
Yuki climbed out of the cart. Ger frowned but said nothing.
“Are you okay?” asked Yuki.
“It’s nothing,” said Ger as he rubbed his jaw.
The gesu were cruel, but Ger had to admit they were right. He was growing old, and he struggled to meet their demands. If he was replaced he would be turned out into the desert. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Yuki studied Ger. His ability to get home, and his life, was in the hands of these strange people. “I can help you,” he offered.
“You cannot help,” Ger dismissed him.
“Please, then I will go,” begged Yuki.
Ger conceded it was impossible for him to meet the gesu’s demands on his own. He looked hard at the scrawny boy before him. Breaking a piece of pink gem from a rock and tossing it to Yuki, he said: “In three days I need twelve bundles of this. We call it pink glass. No glass, no water, no home. Help me, and I will take you to the edge of the Grasslands. If you are lucky, the chitto will help you.”
“The chitto?” asked Yuki.
“They have experience with your kind, that is all I know,” offered Ger.
Yuki was hit with the realisation that he was stuck in this strange world. Something terrible had happened and now everything had changed. He was shocked, but resigned himself to his fate.
“What do I need to do?” he asked.
For the next three days Yuki worked in the mines. His hands throbbed and back ached, but by the second day he kept up with the oman’s demands, pushing carts piled with stone out of tunnels, breaking pink glass free from rock. When the oman struck a seam of the mineral it glowed, and the tunnels pulsed with a soft pink hue as they worked.
At the end of the day they returned to the den. The flame in the oven flickered and shadows danced on the walls. Ger boiled dry bricks of food, which turned to stew. Yuki and Ger ate at the stone table; Snack at Yuki’s feet. Yuki could barely lift the spoon to his mouth, but was grateful for having something to eat.
“What is the pink glass for?” Yuki wondered aloud.
The oman raised his head from his meal. “This,” he pointed to the pink stone on his turban, “is only found in the Sabassa. I mine, I survive. The gesu collects for the shook. The shook trades with ghouls from other lands.”
“Ghouls?” asked Yuki, suddenly curious.
“Yes, ghouls. Many different kinds; all ghouls.”
“What about people, like me?” ventured Yuki.
The oman thought for a moment, chewing his food, “Your kind are rare here.”
Yuki wondered what this meant. He was in a different world, a world of ghouls. He arrived via a tunnel, which had vanished. It seemed other people had been here before.
“How do you think I can get home?”
The oman thought about this. “Patience. Tomorrow, the gesu return,” he said, “if, praise the gods, they do not kill us, at dusk I will take you to the edge of the Sabassa.”
Ger paused, seeing the boy was troubled.
“When I was young our elders would tell us a story about a twerp – a small ghoul with wings – that can occasionally be seen flying over the Sabassa. Rarely do they survive the journey, and no one knows for sure why they try to cross.
Ger pushed aside his plate.
“In the story a twerp had grown desperately thirsty as it flew over the desert. By a stroke of luck it spotted a well. Swooping down, it found the well was empty, but beside the well was a pitcher, and in the bottom of the pitcher there was water. The twerp was filled with hope, but no matter how hard it tried it could not reach the water at the bottom with its beak.”
Yuki pictured the winged ghoul in the middle of the vast desert, feeling sorry for itself in the shade of a solitary well.
“As hopeless as it seemed the twerp refused to give up, for if it did it would surely die. It picked up a pebble with its beak and dropped it into the pitcher, then another, and another, until finally the pitcher was almost full. By doing this the water rose to the top and the twerp was able to drink. Revived, it beat its wings, returned to the sky and flew home.”
Ger looked at Yuki, waiting for a response.
“Do you understand what I am telling you human?” prompted Ger.
“Use your beak?” asked Yuki.
“Ha!” exclaimed Ger, “Yes, use your beak,” he said, tapping his temple with his finger.
“Tomorrow will be long. Sleep.”
Yuki nodded, shuffled across the room, and no sooner had he collapsed into his cot he was snoring like a bear.
He dreamed he trudged along the top of a sand dune beneath a sea of stars. His hands were swollen and puffy. In the sand were pink jewels the size of peaches. When he stooped to pick them up they turned to sand, running through his fingers.
At dawn Yuki woke to find Ger making preparations for the evening’s journey. Ger warned him that scavengers roamed the plains at night, and they would need to be careful.
Working like their lives depended on it, they packed twelve bundles of glass by late afternoon, tying the last bundle as a cloud of dust on the horizon signalled the gesus return. Yuki retreated to the shadow of a tunnel and watched.
Ger frowned. There was only one gesu, who whipped his sawrus ferociously, urging it to gallop across the sand. He had a weapon drawn; an ivory sword curved like a crescent moon.
“Gesu el bat,” greeted Ger as the gesu pulled up his mount. It was the leader, Ger noted. “I have the twelve bundles.”
“Forget that,” shot the leader, “is the mine safe?”
“Yes, of course…” said Ger.
The leader scanned the area, clearly troubled. “The gabba have attacked us. Three mines, maybe more. They have moved further in than ever before.”
“Skirmishes?” suggested Ger.
“No,” replied the leader, “this is war. My party is dead, we have been battling them on multiple fronts.”
Ger couldn’t believe his ears. The gabba were scavengers and a nuisance, but in his lifetime he’d never heard of them making a coordinated attack. This made his plans for crossing the Sabassa far more dangerous.
“What would you have me do gesu?”
“Stow the glass, hide in the mines. Don’t come out until reinforcements arrive. The shook moves an army as we speak.
“Gesu al ghul,” he yelled the battle cry with his sword aloft as he kicked his heels and rode off into the desert again.
“Ger?” asked Yuki as he emerged from the mine.
“The gabba tribes are attacking the Sabassa. We shall stow the glass. Crossing will be more dangerous than I thought,” he worried.
“We’re still going though, right?” said Yuki, “You promised.”
Promises didn’t mean much to Ger, but he reluctantly admitted Yuki had grown on him. The boy couldn’t stay here at the mine, and would surely die if he was left to cross on his own.
“We will go,” he decided, “but it will be risky, do exactly what I tell you to do.”
“I will,” nodded Yuki, relieved.
Yuki shouldered his backpack, considering that it was now everything he owned. It was time to cross the Sabassa by nightfall, and seek out the ghouls of the Grasslands to find a way home.