Bleached bones lay in dunes drifting under the sun, wavering between lucidity and mirage. The Desert of Woe, that’s what they called this godforsaken place, but nothing—from the name to the stories to the bare bones—deterred the many fool hardy adventurers that dared to cross through on their respective quests.
At the edge of the desert, the sands seeped over a ridge of rock and fell into The Swamp of Dread. The hissing falls dipped softly into stagnant waters, where one of the foolhardy adventurers was making his way, ready to brave the desert in the next stage of his journey.
Garbed in leathers and a drenched travelling cloak, he scaled the ridge and clambered onto the plateau; a last reprieve before almost certain death. It was a strange sensation, stepping out of dank muck and festering bog to be smacked in the face by the coarse hot air of the desert. Even stranger, was finding a witch’s hovel. It was constructed from a ratty tarpaulin, kept up with shoddy poles of rotting wood and secured in place with what one could assume must be a deal with the devil.
The witch was before it, an old hag hunched over a tiny cauldron that bubbled over the rim with viscous broth.
“Welcome, traveller,” her voice was like taught leather if it could speak, “Ye be brave enough to venture into The Desert of Woe?”
“Aye, hag . . . what business do you have here?”
“Hag, HAG?” Her voice rose and echoed over the dunes, followed by cackling, “At least my cloth is clean, my feet are dry and my legs well rested. Can you say the same? I am a potion maker, I do business with the brave—or foolish.” She grinned wickedly. “I part them from their coin before they are parted from their lives.”
“What do you offer that I should purchase, if the brave end up dead regardless?”
“An elixir of sorts, it protects you from the dune feeders; creatures that hide beneath the sand and are drawn to the granules shifting due to armoured foot. My potion will make you lighter than the air, they will only think you a wisp of wind and let you pass . . . it is the other dangers of the desert you must be quick of skill to face, none so far have been.”
“How much for this potion?”
“All the gold in your purse.”
The adventurer gazed out across the shifting sands, whipped around by winds broken upon the bare ribs, and skulls, and fragments of armour. “Did they buy your potion?”
“Nay, you’ll find the bones of those that did in the heart of the desert. These men and women were fools who begrudged my presence.”
“Fine,” he ripped the purse from his sash and threw it at the witch’s feet, it landed with a sad jingle.
She lifted the pouch to her gnarled nose and sniffed deeply at the leather, smiling with crooked teeth. Then she reached behind her and pulled out a large, green glass bottle whose innards pulsed and swirled. It was marked with deep notches, seven in total at regular intervals from rim to bottom.
The adventurer took it reverently. He ran his fingers along the notches, and eyed the witch who looked on expectantly. What she expected, he did not know. So he smiled awkwardly and nodded his thanks. As he marched to the edge of the rocky midground between swamp and desert, the witch shrugged and went back to her cauldron. He popped the cork form the top of the bottle, the foul stench made him flinch, but he steeled himself and downed the potion entirely, almost blacking out from the putrid taste and the gall that rose to challenge its descent into his bowels.
“What the hell are you doing?” the witch rose and berated the adventurer, hobbling over with waving arms. “There was enough in there to last you the whole week it would take to cross the desert!”
“That was a week’s worth! How the hell could you stomach so much? Are you some kind of mad beast? It was all for naught as it’ll wear off in a day and you’ll become ensnared by the predators that dwell beneath the sands!”
“Why wouldn’t you tell me that?”
“What the hell do you think the notches on the edge of the bottle are for? I thought you’d ask, and when you didn’t I assumed you’d know. Each notch was a carefully measured dose. Out of all the fools to venture out into the desert, you are by far the fool-est!”
“Well,” the adventurer struggled to save face as his innards rebelled against him, “Just make more, I will barter with my garments if I have to.”
“It took me a day to gather the ingredients and the whole morning to make it. Come back tomorrow with more gold. You fool.” She cackled, a sound that drove him away.
The adventurer stalked to the edge of the ridge before the swamp and called back, “Well fuck you then and I’ll see you tomorrow, foul witch!” he stepped form the ridge and floated down to the swamps with the potion’s magic, sprinting away over stagnant waters, but under the far reach of the witch’s taunting cackle.
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