The Ancient One sat before her hearth, waiting. It had been eight months since she had sent the Seeker into the world. The Ancient One threw another log on the fire, measuring with her eyes the length of time it took to turn the brown tree flesh into white bone. As she watched the flames devour the wood, she counted silently: One, two, three, four, five.
She did not know, or care, what she was counting–minutes, months, miles. What did measurements matter if one was cold
? What is taking her so long?
she wondered. I haven’t got all millennium.
She jabbed her crooked stick impatiently into the fire.
“Here!” she said, dredging the stick through the tiny mountains and valleys of glowing cinders. “Go here, and here!”
But even as she mapped the long, meandering route–southward and then eastward–it was covered under a desert of shifting ash.
The Ancient One shook her head. “You’ll go where I tell you to go,” she muttered. And with a patience born of desperation, she traced the Seeker’s path again . . . and again, and again.
Some say the world is flat, like a plate, while others insist the world is round, like a bean pot. However, as all properly educated people know, the world is actually shaped like a bowl, gently sloping downward and inward, cupping the land and sea securely within its edges. At the far northern rim of this bowl lies a ring of mountains so high that no human being has ever scaled them. These mountains hold up the sky, preventing it from falling down and crushing the earth. All the lands in which people dwell are beautiful, from the tiniest forest glade to the loftiest mountain, for any land that provides a home is lovely to the eye–with the possible exception of the Great Desert.
Those who have never lived among its shifting sands say that the Great Desert has a face only a mother could love. Pocked, pitted, strewn with boulders, creased with barren gullies and ravines, bruised by the hot sun, and scarred by fierce sandstorms, the desert is a land loved by few and feared by many. But those who do love the ugliest of Nature’s faces do so with all their hearts. They are known as the Blue People, a people whose spirits are as vast and unyielding as the desert they defend, for, like the desert, they cannot be conquered.
Anyone choosing to cross the desert may do so only with the permission, and usually in the company, of the Blue People. To attempt such a journey alone is to risk a slow, agonizing death, as the desert likes to hide its life-giving waters from strangers. The other risks–being captured by slave traders or bitten by poisonous snakes–pale in comparison to death by thirst. The Blue men are unsurpassed as guides and invincible as warriors, for life in the desert is harsh and a knowledge of where and how to strike is as useful for a Blue man as it is for a cobra. Most people prefer to avoid both.
Elissa was not in a position to avoid either.
The Blue People were leading her and Maya to safety, and the snakes liked to cuddle up with her at night. Being chased across the desert, bombarded by sandstorms, nearly dying of thirst, and having to confront the Khan single-handedly–not to mention his army–was far more trying than this relatively dull journey to Alhamazar. Nevertheless, after weeks of eating sand, shaking affectionate reptiles out of her boots, and being jostled around on top of Ralph’s swaying hump, Maya and Elissa were both ready for a change. Even more so Gertrude, who, in the absence of fresh pasture, had lapsed into a determined, sullen silence. The miserable donkey hardly gave Ralph a twitch of her tail in spite of the camel’s many hopeful, but completely futile, attempts to lure her into conversation.
“How much farther?” Elissa had not meant to ask the question aloud, but Ralph, with his sharp ears, had heard her. The camel craned his neck around and turned his gorgeous eyes to Elissa.
“We are not far from our destination,” he said. “Are you ladies sufficiently comfortable? Would you like me to halt?”
Elissa answered quickly, before Ralph could offer them a picnic, a brisk walk, a game of cards, some tea. “No, don’t stop. Please. We’re fine. Really.”
Ralph continued on, but the truth was that they were not fine. Maya had not looked well since they had left the oasis. As Maya leaned her cheek against the pommel, Elissa could see that her eyes were closed. But Elissa knew she was not sleeping. Looking at her little companion, Elissa could plainly see the toll the dry desert heat had taken on Maya over the last few weeks. Her eyes had sunken into dark little pockets, and they had lost their shine. For Maya’s sake, she hoped that Ralph had an accurate sense of distance.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Phoenix Rising #2: Elissa's Odyssey by Erica Verrillo. Copyright © 2008 by Erica Verrillo. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.