The world went dark before Kangassk’s eyes… He half-anticipated the stars to appear but they didn’t. The darkness swallowed him whole.
Human mind can’t stand being left in the dark, it rebels against that by creating imaginary things to fill the void. Kangassk saw a desert in front of him, rows upon rows of wavy dunes made not of sand, not of aren, but of white salt - all that remained after the great sea had gone. What used to be the former sea’s shallows, now was broad plateaus on top of the tall cliffs towering above the salt desert. He was standing on the bottom of Sylvia’s empty chalice. He was trapped in that vision; even worse: he felt that he wasn’t alone here.
A wind rose at the bottom of the dead sea, between the salt dunes. It didn’t howl, didn’t rush; it whispered and… searched, sifting through salt, patiently, meticulously, like a blind but intelligent monster.
The fine salt rose into the air in swirly clouds, shapeless, shifting. Too late Kangassk realized what was going on… Human mind hates uncertainty. Just like it fills darkness with imaginary wonders and horrors, it fills shifty shapes with meaning…
With the help of Kan’s own mind, the demon materialized in the dead sea world. Even more: it took the worst shape possible. A yellow dragon appeared out of thin air before the puny human. Everything was just like he remembered: the snouty, ugly head marked with stupidity, hunger, and brainless curiosity; the greedy little eyes set close together; the crooked claws; the long, restless tail; the monstrous wings spread in a threatening gesture…
Kangassk desperately wished for a sword and the sword appeared in his hand.
“There was no honour in that battle,” he thought, wincing at the sun. He recalled the day when he, a teen, was slaughtering mortally wounded dragons near the walls of his home city. “But now…”
He couldn’t think straight; foreign, intrusive thoughts kept flickering in his mind. The agonizing vitryanik’s thoughts. Old Osaro’s lesson that he had recalled just yesterday, came in handy now.
“Empty your mind, my apprentice...”
Kangassk refused to care about what the demon tried to throw at him, refused to enter the futile battle of minds. He rose above the dark stream and left the alien thoughts to their madness; he wanted no part in it. He rose above his own imaginary turmoil as well. Now he was able to think clearly again and see through the illusion. It still didn’t let Kan go but at least he saw himself still standing between Flavus and Sylvia, maintaining the link between them, and felt the girl’s magic escape into the ether through that link. He just needed to hold on a bit longer. The demon was dying...
The dragon uttered a mind-shattering roar and charged, throwing the salt everywhere with its enormous paws. Everything Kangassk had learned from his teachers went into him keeping away from the swishing tail, grabbing talons, and snapping jaws. He tried to fight back a couple of times but the shiny golden scales protected the monstrous creature, making the blade slide on their perfectly smooth surface. Right: to kill a dragon, you have to go for its soft throat. Good luck getting past the biting teeth along the way!
Back in Kuldagan, it took two people to kill a mortally wounded, grounded dragon. One of them distracted the beast, the other put a spear or a sword through its throat. Now, Kangassk was alone.
His muscles felt no fatigue in the imaginary world but his soul did. Imagination played along, making Kan’s imaginary self stumble and gasp for air. He wished for help as desperately now as he had wished for a sword not long ago.
“I wish someone would distract it…” the single, all-consuming thought throbbed in his mind…
“Hey, monster! Come and get me!” somebody cried in a shaky, terrified voice. A humble man who had never raised his voice on anyone before could have sounded like that.
The dragon noticed him, though, and turned its head to the stranger. Kangassk’s first impulse was to turn to him as well; the voice sounded so familiar! He was glad he resisted for it was the distraction he had been praying for. For a brief, precious moment, the way to the dragon’s throat was open. Kan plunged his sword into it and rolled away, barely escaping the snap of the mighty jaws.
In its agony, the dragon became even more dangerous. Unlike its grounded brethren with broken limbs and sand-filled eyes, it could still see and move.
Never before Kangassk had been running so fast. He rolled down the dunes, zig-zagged among the columns of salt, and grasped at every opportunity to win himself some time. The dragon followed him, splashing fountains of blood and crushing every obstacle along the way.
When all seemed lost, the stranger came to Kan’s aid once again. This time Kan saw him: a white figure between the crushed salt columns. The man was shouting at the top of his lungs and stood there, unmoving, his hands spread in a welcoming gesture.
The dragon lunged for him, talons grasping, teeth snapping, and… went right through the ghostly figure without even touching it. Unbalanced, the monster fell and this time didn’t get up.
Kangassk fell too, head-first into the salt. He jumped back on his feet right away, though, and carefully approached the fallen dragon with his sword ready.
“This is not necessary,” he heard the voice again.
This time, he turned around to face his saviour. A slender old man stood before Kan. He had silver hair and kind brown eyes glistening with tears. The Apprentice recognized him right away.
“Malconemershghan…” he whispered.
“Just his ghost, my boy,” the man corrected him.
He approached Kangassk and put both hands on his shoulders. For a short time, the ghostly figure became real again. Malconemershghan Saidonatgarlyn was about the same height as Kangassk. He smiled exactly the same way as the portrait in that book: kindly and dreamily.
He disappeared the moment Kan blinked and no amount of calling, shouting, and wishing could bring him back. Devastated, Kangassk fell to his knees and dropped his bloody sword into the salt.
The desert was not going to disappear and let him go. If anything, it seemed more real than ever now.
“Where to now?” thought Kangassk. “Which way is the exit?”
He grabbed his cold obsidian but the soothstone, usually so responsive to the touch, seemed dead now. The dragon was dead as well. And with the ghost of the former Apprentice gone, there was not a single soul in this world.
Not knowing what else to do, Kangassk chose a direction at random and started walking. He walked for a long time under the scorching sun, without water and food, dead tired and terrified. In the end, he could only crawl, dragging his sword behind him. In the last moment before giving up and collapsing he saw that the merciless desert was still there and felt that he had, after all, lost.