The Mauler: Part 3-The Oasis
He’d gone at least a mile. Walking, slowly. He’d torn his shirt to tatters in order to bandage the wound. He’d managed to stop the bleeding, at least a little. But the pain hadn’t stopped. Not one damn bit.
Something blurred his vision, he guessed the pain. It annoyed him. But his senses were as sharp as the heat, sharp as the cool wind biting his bare chest. If anyone had been there to see him, that lone, white haired man with teeth hanging from his body, they’d have seen them.
The tattoos. The long, tattoos of snakes wrapping around his muscled, sun-beaten chest, riddled with pale scars. Their bodies started at his waist, then coiled up and around his body like one muscle, counter-twisting over each other, their bodies, black as ebony-dipped night, with an inner, shimmering resonance of the deepest blue, finally ending on the back of his hands, with the mouths wide open, fangs long and curving cruelly. And their eyes. Sparkling, demonic rubies. They glowed with bloodlust and hatred.
The desert stretched on for mile upon mile. Somewhere he heard a coyote howl, followed by the keen, high-pitched caw of a vulture circling above. He smiled grimly. Even the animals of the Wilds thought him weak.
The nearest town was still miles away. He had to make it, or else the heat and blood loss would finish him.
His legs grew weaker, shakier. He stumbled on. He let his eyes fall to the sand, watching his feet struggle on, the muscles in his legs protesting with every step forward. He needed to rest. He wanted to rest. To lie down in the soft sand…
Suddenly, he heard something. At first, he thought it nothing. A trick of the wind or the mind, nothing that deserved his concern. But it got louder. And louder. It reached the point that it was undeniable, irrefutable.
The slight sound of wind brushing over water. More than that. The smell of it, the subtle touch of its coolness in the air upon his skin. He didn’t believe it, but he looked in its direction anyway.
And, instead of the endless, dry and barren reaches of the wasteland around him, he saw green. Sweet luscious green, hanging from the tops of palm trees in broad, voluptuous leaves dipped in and dripping with dew. Grass, thick like a bear’s fur, covered a small patch of the earth, consuming it. And bushes, broad and sprawling, formed a wondrous hedge.
Hawthorn didn’t believe his eyes, but then a memory flashed through his mind. The Oases. The elusive and illusive havens that every lost, left-for-dead cowboy prayed he’d see, the glorious sanctuaries that inhabited only wild legends told around fires and desperate men’s dreams. And now one stood before his very eyes.
He charged ahead. The bushes parted with his violent will, and ahead he saw a pool, with water as clear as diamond and as lustrous as silver.
Ignoring the pain, he dipped his hands into the water, the cold of the water, so strange, so singular, so disconnected from the heat and desolation around him, rushed through his hands and up his arms. He cupped a good portion of the crystalline, translucent liquid, then splashed it over his face.
He cupped more of it, then poured it down his parched throat so fast he choked. He couldn’t get it down fast enough. He took a breath. The air of the Oasis was soothing. But there was more here than just water, Hawthorn knew.
The Oases held many mysteries, secrets known only by those that had seen them, experienced their live-saving gifts. One of which he searched for now. It had been a long time since he’d set foot in an Oasis, and his knowledge of them was as good as most. He did not know if this one possessed what he needed. But he searched nonetheless.
He rounded the bank of the pond, searched through the brush, until he found a small patch of dark shade where they grew. Their white petals, pure and delicate like the freshest drops of morning dew, fluttered a little in the wind. The Moonfeather. Hawthorn touched their petals, softly, gently, with all the care of a mother stroking the bare head of a newborn. They were his life, for in their petals lay a nectar that few medicines could rival in healing potency.
He grabbed enough. He went back to the pond and found a smooth stone. He took out his knife. He felt that giddy rush again, happy the Gavrokan had been so strictly observant of his faith. Using the pommel of his knife’s handle, he ground the petals against the stone into a fine powder. He took his hat and dipped it in the pond, filling it with water. He sprinkled a portion of the powder into the hat, then took a gulp with his lips to the brim. That would numb his pain. The rest he poured on his wound.
It stung and made him grit his teeth. But it take effect soon. He watched as the water washed away the dry and running blood, dripping to the grass.
He would never understand what happened next, except that, after what felt a moment, a piece of time flying faster than dust whisked in the wind, he decided to look up at the sky.
The night had come. Depthless darkness reined above, stars staring down at him in their vast brilliance, the moon pale and haunting. Where had the sun gone? He blinked rubbed his face; no. Night was still there. Still draping across the horizon in endless curtains of oblivion. He had not slept, not dreamed. The night had just come. Come, and that was it. He had no idea where the hours had gone, how time had passed without his noticing. These occurrences plagued him every other night, steeling away his mind along with actual sleep, not that he’d had actual sleep for a long time. He had no perception of time or space when they happened. Sometimes there’d be visions, flashes of things he’d seen and done, or strange scenes he couldn’t even begin to describe the nature of.
And there was the voice with its teeth. Hawthorn.
He shuddered. Usually his body felt strange after the trances. Not exactly rested, but not exactly used either. That could not be said of tonight. The Moonfeather had taken an effect. A feeling of regeneration, of fresh invigoration fueled by boundless energy, flowed through him. A sensation of rebirth.
He took note of his surroundings. There was no sound, no coyote howling or cricket chirping.
He was alone in the Oasis, alone in the darkness of the Wilds.
Remembering his wound, he looked at his side aided by the moonlight. The flesh had been melded together flawlessly. Not even a scar remained. It was as if the wound had never been given in the first place. He stood. Gone were all the flashes of agony, the gnawing teeth of pain had released him. He was healed, revived.
Time to get on with the job.
Sheathing his knife, he walked forward and parted the bushes. The sands had been rendered to a ghostly pale white without the sun. They stretched in their usual rolling dunes until the brush and dogwoods appeared. But something else dotted the dark horizon now. They were faint, but Hawthorn knew his eyes well enough that they weren’t a trick of the Wilds.
Tiny flames, flickering pinpricks of fiery brightness, shone in the distance. Campfires, no doubt, Hawthorn thought. Signs of civilization.
A place to get what he needed. But he did not let his desire for such respite overwhelm him. Nighttime in the Wilds bred many strange and hostile things.
It was his only shot.
He walked on, leaving the Oasis behind. After he’d walked a few yards, he decided to look back.
And, as he expected, the Oasis was gone. He chuckled and continued toward the distant flames.