She is young, but she is old.
She has nothing, but gives everything.
The desert stole her body,
But her spirit will never be stopped.
This is a tale known to all seces who have set foot on land. It is told to children with dye dances before they learn to lung-breathe, and travellers have created extraordinary puppet shows to share the story at taverns and bars in ways that other sentients can understand.
It is the story of a lonely undercave child who, after being separated from her family, died in the I’rekan desert. Different versions of the story depict her death differently. Some tell of her walking until her last breath, trying desperately to find water; others her sobbing herself to sleep, alone and thirsty under the three moons, only to never wake again.
The tale, originating from seces culture, has roots in the Okara religion. After her death, it is said that Mo’ay’a became an elemental spirit that now serves Nikia, the Okaras water goddess.
Mo’ay’a created a magical oasis for seces who become lost in the I’rekan desert. It is said her oasis only appears at night for those who believe in her, and disappears before the first light of morning while the lost souls are sleeping. Many travellers try to stay awake to meet Mo’ay’a, but their exhaustion takes them over and they sleep as if put under a spell. However, Mo’ay’a has been known to appear for young children; she wakes them from their sleep and plays games with them while their parents rest.
There is a rumour that Mo’ay’a will punish seces who have taken too much water from her oasis. This is a myth. Mo’ay’a will give as much water as the lost seces needs to travel comfortably home, and more.
Mo’ay’a’s oasis only appears for a day or two at a time and so it cannot be marked on maps. It only appears when needed, sometimes out of nowhere: a lost seces known as Refgek said that the oasis appeared before him in the blink of an eye and vanished overnight.
The Death of Mo’ay’a
It was year 405 when Mo’ay’a arrived in I’reka with her family. She hadn’t realised they’d passed the border until her fathers told her. Her first father, Gral’gant, lead the family to the entrance to a cave. The cold dry hit them instantaneously and Mo’ay’a had stared open-mouthed into the dark night.
She’d seen sand before, on her nights out with her fathers in Crat’re when they’d wander along the beaches and collect trinkets dropped by day-dwellers… but it had always been beach sand. Soft and moist and white.
She didn’t like the colour of this sand: deep yellow like a poisonous fish that looked too vibrant in the moonlight.
Her mothers and her brothers hadn’t been nearly as curious as she had and simply turned away, but Mo’ay’a begged her first father to take her out into the desert.
He told her no. It was too dry outside for seces.
Mo’ay’a had been disappointed but she was obedient; she followed him back inside and they continued their journey to Wh’ey.
Three weeks passed as the family travelled the caves. They were following an underwater river that passed through many Rendi cities. Mo’ay’a enjoyed playing with the young bird-people, especially the talkative avio, and was sad every time she had to leave her new friends.
Although she was sad, she never complained. She knew it was hard for her parents to take her and her siblings through the desert. They were a big family, after all. Instead, she occupied herself with thoughts of the sands. She managed to steal looks at it through cave entrances while playing with the locals, but her parents kept too close an eye on her and stopped her whenever she tried to follow her friends outside.
It was the end of the fourth week that Mo’ay’a’s curiosity finally got the better of her and, during the early hours of the morning when the sun was starting to rise and her family were settling in to sleep, Mo’ay’a crept away.
She followed a zokex through the caves until the dragon found an exit. She watched as they leapt into the air and veered away into the early morning sky.
Watching the zokex made Mo’ay’a wish she could spread her arms like wings and take off into the blue-grey expanse above…. Instead, she climbed out of the rocky cave entrance and stumbled onto the sand. She hadn’t expected the sand to be so loose and she slipped down the dune. She rolled as she fell, scattering sand into the air and filling her gills with the rough grains.
She coughed and sputtered as she choked. Tears welled in her eyes and she felt like she was going to pass out. A gust of wind blew more sand into her face and she clambered to her feet, desperate to get back inside the cave.
She couldn’t, however, as the incline was too great for one without wings and she simply slid to the bottom with each attempt to climb it.
It would have been wise for her to have waited by the entrance or to have called out, but Mo’ay’a was young and her only thought was the rising sun and the warming of the air; she wanted to get back inside as soon as possible, so she wandered away in search of another way into the caves.
Mo’ay’a wandered for hours in the open desert. The sun beat down on her and she felt her skin blistering. The sand that had blown into her face made her gills and eyes ache. She’d given up on finding a second entrance and attempted to find her way back to the first, but everything looked the same and she’d gone the wrong way. She was tired now and she could barely breathe. Her gills were so dry….
Mo’ay’a collapsed in the sand and let the rising wind blow over her. As sand began to cover her body she felt cooler. She wasn’t sure if it was the chill in the wind, or if it was the sand stopping the sun from beating so harshly against her skin… or if the cold was connected to the darkness that crept into the corners of her eyes that slowly got blacker and blacker.
It was dark by the time Mo’ay’a woke up.
She was half-buried in the sand and struggled to pull herself free. She was thirsty. Her skin was dry and her gills ached like she’d never felt before. She just wanted to go home.
The child began to wander the desert again; staggering in a random direction and praying to the gods that she found her way home.
She didn’t feel tired anymore, and the night seemed warmer than it should have, but Mo’ay’a didn’t care. She just wanted water. She closed her eyes and imagined the ocean back home…. The long walks her family would take on the beach…. Running in and out of the waves…. Mo’ay’a could picture it so clearly. She felt like she could cup her hands and scoop the ocean over herself….
Then she opened her eyes and saw nothing but desert ahead of her and her heart sunk. There was no ocean here.
It took her a moment to realise that, while fantasising about the ocean, she had actually cupped her hands to scoop the water from her imaginary ocean. She looked down and froze. In her hands there was water. Tentatively she lifted her hands, unable to believe what she was seeing, and the water began to trickle through her fingers and onto the ground. She panicked and splashed the water over her face in an attempt to absorb some of its moisture, but it simply ran over her skin and dripped to the ground, and she was left feeling as thirsty as before.
A strangled sound escaped her throat as she watched the water soak into the sand. She grasp desperately at the ground as if trying to pull the water back; she knew it wouldn’t work, but she tried.
Mo’ay’a’s wandering continued until the dawn light began to touch the sky with its deadly yellow beauty. She looked out across the sands and waited for the heat to join her thirst.
When the sun rose to the middle of the sky and she still felt cold she began to wonder if it was all just a bad dream. She told herself quietly, again and again, that she would wake up and be in her first father’s arms, but the itching in her gills felt too real to her, and the dream had lasted too long… but nothing felt normal and she could only think it was because she was dreaming. Dreaming… or….
Mo’ay’a could hear crying from over the dune. She struggled to the top and peered over the sands. Below her was an avio boy. She recognised him as someone she’d played with only a few days before.
He sat below a hole in the sands, only a little too high for him to reach, and Mo’ay’a felt her heart leap; she’d found her way back to the entrance she’d fallen from.
The young seces slid down the dune and stumbled to the avio boy’s side. He jumped when she appeared. Then he sniffed back his tears and smiled as he greeted her. Mo’ay’a tried to put an arm around her friend, to comfort him and tell him he would be alright, but when she touched his shoulder her hand simply passed through him. She stepped back as the avio cried and put his wings over his head.
Mo’ay’a sighed, her gills still aching with thirst, and knew she had to face what had happened to her.
She looked down at her friend and closed her eyes, holding her cupped hands to the sky. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to summon water —or if he would be able to drink it if she did— but she tried.
She thought of the cave river that her family had travelled by, so close under their feet. The cold running waterfall that splashed the ground and soaked the walls and roof with misty spray…. It was falling into her hands, filling them with clear, clean water.
She opened her eyes and held out her hands to the young avio, who stopped crying and stared. After a second, he leant forward and drank the water that had pooled in Mo’ay’a’s palms.
A wet line ran down the boy’s chin as Mo’ay’a pulled her hands away and she worried for a moment that he hadn’t drunk; but then he burped, wiping his mouth with his feathery wrist, and Mo’ay’a let herself smile.
He stared back at her, his eyes sparkling with amazement. He only broke eye contact when he heard his name being called. He jumped to his feet and shouted back excitedly; trying to fly into the cave entrance above him.
When he fell back to the ground he turned to Mo’ay’a and pointed up.
Mo’ay’a simply looked to her friend sadly and asked him to tell her family she wouldn’t be coming home.