There was once a land, long before and far away from these troubled times, where every child was born with a desire and a destination marked upon them, so that they might know what dwelt in their future. Upon their left hand, a symbol to represent what would give them the greatest happiness in their life. And upon their right hand, a compass that would lead them in the direction of where their desire might be found. Thus, those born to be a merchant might find a gold coin from a distant land etched into one hand accompanied by a city many miles away upon their other. A farmer might have the crop that would be the most fertile and have their journey be several villages away. For all those that lived, the desires could be as vast as the human heart, the destinations a step away or across the entire expanse of earth, but every child was born knowing where their desires lay.
And it was in such a land that a man and woman gave birth to twins, a son and daughter, who were to their parents' delight, born healthy and beautiful, but to their parents' regret, also cursed and incomplete. For the son, Rasul, had a desire, a flock of birds in flight illustrated upon his hand, but his right hand was unmarked. His sister, Rawiya, was given the opposite, a blank left hand and her right marked with the compass. The midwife who delivered them shook her head and blessed herself, for it was clearly a sign of godly disfavor caused by the parents but visited upon the children. She wept for their fate, since such children could never know true happiness. Indeed, their village became wary of Rasul and Rawiya, for who knew if such a curse could be passed to others. Soon, the children were left alone, to grow up with each other as sole confidants and friends.
Because here was the true misfortune of Rasul and Rawiya. Had they been born to royalty, no doubt a noble quest would have been undertaken to rid themselves of this curse. The king would have called for his bravest knights, his wisest holy men, his most brilliant magicians to find a way to restore their destinies. But they were born as most children were, with no advantages beyond the love their parents gave them and as such, they would have to save themselves.
Had they been more timid or more domestic, the children might have contented themselves with their fates and resolved to let their wishes go unfulfilled. For not everyone sought their true happiness. Indeed, a compass would tell you what direction to go, but not how far you needed to and many resolved that what lay at home was far more important than anything one would have to journey to find. Some would seek their desires, but many, upon realizing their fate might lay leagues away in distant lands, gave up hope upon achieving it.
However, Rasul and Rawiya were brave children, clever and adventurous, and they grew up with a strong belief that somewhere out there, there must be an answer to their incomplete nature. And so they determined upon reaching adulthood, to venture beyond their village and seek their desires, no matter where they lay. Their parents cried and begged for them to remain.
Stay here, their father said, and be content with what you have, since there is no surety that you may find true happiness in this world.
But Rasul said no, for we were granted this curse for a reason, and we must determine what the reason might be,
Stay here, their mother said, and be safe from harm and misfortune, since the world is a dangerous and treacherous place that will lead you astray.
But Rawiya said no, for we will never find answers by remaining here and there may be someone out there who can help us find our desires.
And so the parents sadly bid their children farewell, as Rasul and Rawiya prepared to leave their home. As they had no desire to let their children suffer, they had saved what meager funds they had to buy them two horses, that they might not make the long journey on foot, and supplies for the journey, that they might not starve long before they reached their end. Rawiya took an additional precaution, dressing in her brother's clothing, for even in those days, a woman travelling on her own faced dangers that a young man would not.
Still, neither of the twins were afraid of the rigors of the road and they had prepared themselves for any hardships they might face since they resolved to travel together. Perhaps they were meant to travel as a pair, they reasoned, one knowing the direction they must travel and the other knowing what they must seek.
Indeed, they promised to their parents that whatever happened, they would look out for each other and keep the other one safe from any harm. So their father and mother kissed them and Rasul and Rawiya left their home without looking back.
They traveled north for many a day and night, taking turns keeping watch while the other rested. The roads were dangerous for travelers even then, with bandits seeking to prey upon those new to lands and the twins were wise enough to know that behind a friendly guise might lurk a dark heart. So it was by this way that they came across a fork in a road upon a grim and cloudy day, where the compass showed that Rawiya's fate lay to the west.
They were about to proceed down the road when a flock of dark birds flew to the east, and Rasul knew in his heart they were the ones marked upon his hand. It was then the twins knew that whatever their desires or destinies might be, they were not down the same path.
Neither twin wished to part, for they were each other's comfort in life and to go alone was a fate they had not contemplated. To violate the promise to their parents, too, was a grave offense to them. But it seemed clear that such a decision had to be made, for it was clear that only one of them would find their desire if they traveled together.
Rasul embraced his sister and said, be safe, and fear not, for we will meet again with our curse lifted.
Rawiya returned the embrace and said, we shall meet at these crossroad in a year's time, and know our desires.
Then Rasul went east and Rawiya went west. They kept looking back at each other from time to time until separation made it impossible to see more than a speck on the horizon.
Rasul kept his eye on the birds in the sky, and followed their path. It became clear that these were not ordinary birds, since they kept his pace, slowing when he did and speeding when he raced his horse. He dared not rest, fearing he would lose track of them, but when sleep eventually came upon him and he was forced to close his eyes, he awoke the next morning to the sight of them circling in the sky.
He followed the flock for many days and nights, as the sun rose and set in the sky, and new stars appeared, forming constellations unfamiliar to his gaze. He did not know where the end lay and he wondered if his sister might be luckier, for having a destination.
It was upon an early morning, when the sky was rosy with the early light of dawn, when he saw a magnificent city emerge out of a bank of clouds, suspended in the air. It seemed a mirage to him, an illusion cast by weariness after so many days of travel, and he rubbed his eyes, but it did not disappear. And he thought, yes, this must be where I can find my desire, for the birds on his hand had puzzled him his entire life. Perhaps they were meant to lead me here all this time.
But how to reach this destination? To travel many miles away to a city on land or sea would be simple through common means, but a city suspended in air must take magical ones, and he was not a man of sorcery or divine powers. He had heard of such men, through tales his sister read to him, but he knew none that actually existed. At at once, the sense of joy he had felt upon seeing what must surely be the end of his journey was crushed by despair.
The birds still circled above him, though, and so he resolved to continue to follow them. Perhaps they could lead him to someone who could help him attain the city. So he started down the road once more, his eyes fixed to the city in the sky.
And as Rasul rode, the lands around him changed. Trees he had never seen before sprung up and thickened into impenetrable forests. It became harder to see the city in the sky, which was as constant as the moon and sun, but he kept his eyes fixed above him, worried that one morning, he would wake and it would have disappear as easily as it appeared. So he did not see that the road became bumpier, the woods around him deeper. He did not see that the path behind him had vanished.
It was when the sun was setting and everything around him began to slip into night, that Rasul realized he could no longer see the city, which had begun to grow fainter and more distant the further he traveled. As his eyes frantically tried to find it, the birds above him flew off, now indistinguishable from a sky where the stars seemed dim and distant. He looked behind him and realized that there was nothing behind but darkness.
Rasul rode now on a path he could barely see, having no choice but to go forward. He longed for his parents now, that he had listened to them when they cautioned him, for it seemed that the heavens had played a cruel trick on him, promising him something he could never attain. He wished for Rawiya, that he might not take this lonely journey without her.
A voice called out, Do you fear, child?, and Rasul stopped his horse, for the road in front of him had vanished as well. Around him, trees rose thorny and twisted. Only the light of the moon illuminated his sight.
Do you fear?, a second voice called, and Rasul lifted his eyes to the branches above him. There were faces in the trees, leering and mocking. They bore grotesque smiles upon their gnarled faces,
Then they all began to say, Do you fear?, over and over until the cacophony of their voices was too much to bear.
And he cried out, Yes, and they fell silent. In the sudden peace, he heard the beating of giant wings and two large, strange birds swooped down in front of him, perching upon some branches.
And it seemed that one fixed its gaze upon him and he heard in his mind a voice say, But why do you fear?
Then the other turned its eyes to him and it said, Did you not choose this road?
Rasul said, But I did not know where it would lead, oh, Great Ones. I only sought to know my desire and my destination.
Child, one said, if you wish, you shall know both.
Rasul, the other said, You must not fear it.
And he knew this to be truth and so he stilled his quaking heart and listened to nothing but the sound of their voices. The roaring wind, the birds' beating wings, even the rustling of small creatures in the underbrush all left him and he knew pure silence.
Into this silence came a new voice and it said, you were born without a destination because you shall never know an end. There will be no home for you. This is your curse.
Rasul knew this to be true and where a child might have wept from the bitterness of this knowledge, he did not let it weigh down his soul. For in knowing that he had no destination, he now knew what his desire was.
I accept this curse, Rasul said, and I take upon its blessings as well. He thought of Rawiya and his parents once more, and then let himself forget even them.
And as he was enveloped by great, beating wings, it seemed that all burdens had been lifted from his shoulders.
When the sun arose the next morning, nothing remained but a large, beautiful bird, which lifted itself towards the city in the sky, to never touch ground again.
Rawiya kept her eyes on the compass on her hand, and as it told her to go south or east, she followed its arrow. She did not know what she was seeking, and she wondered if her brother might be the more fortunate one, since he knew what form his happiness would take, whereas Rawiya might have it right under her nose and never know it.
She traveled days and nights until she stood upon the vast expanse of a desert, sand stretching out as far as her eyes could see, with a few mountains rising from it. If her desire lay within this emptiness, Rawiya could not imagine what it would be.
A passing trader of beasts sold her a camel in exchange for her horse and she set out on a cool night, when stars were just dotting the sky. She feared she might have to cross the entire desert, but it was only a few hours before she came across a mountain side and the arrow on her hand pointed straight ahead into the rock.
To be out here by yourself, child, is a truly strange thing, said a voice and Rawiya saw an old man, sitting by a fire. His wizened face peered at her, and he motioned for her to come forward. She dismounted the camel and stood in front of him, uncertain about what would happen next.
I'm seeking my desire, she said, and held up her right hand for his examination.
Ah, he said, so you seek the same as me. He lifted up his right hand and she could see the same arrow pointing towards the mountain. --But it has taken me many years to get here, whereas you are still young.
Rawiya held her unmarked left hand up in response. --I do not know what it is, though. The old man peered at it.
Then shall you help me find mine, he said, and perhaps you shall come to know your own. And he arose so quickly that he seemed but a young man.
It seemed no great matter to Rawiya to assist him, and so she watched as he burned some herbs in the fire. The smoke gradually changed into a plume of green and the mountain began to tremble. After some time, even the ground shook and she wondered if the earth would split to swallow them whole.
At last, with a groan, a door to the mountain opened and a figure wrapped in a black cloak emerged from it. She could not make out its face, but the old man beside her sighed happily.
At last, he said. --My desire is here.
The figure gestured to the door, beckoning them inside. The old man went first and Rawiya followed. The door closed behind her, and as she adjusted her eyes to the dim light inside, she noticed a vast and wondrous cavern with passages splitting off in all directions. Candles nestled in crevices provided light and everywhere she looked, it seemed she saw golden treasures or fantastic works of art.
They turned down one of the passageways and followed it for some time until they entered into a smaller room with a table set for a sumptuous meal. They sat down on the chairs and Rawiya watched as the figure removed its cloak to reveal a beautiful woman with piercing green eyes.
Now sit, she said, and eat and then we shall talk.
And so they dined and the food was exquisite though Rawiya could barely taste it, so filled with awe and wonder upon all she had seen. After they had finished, the dishes were cleared away by invisible hands, and soon all that remained were the three of them.
Tell me, the woman asked, why are you here?
The old man said nothing, but outstretched his left hand to the woman, who gazed down upon it. Rawiya could not see what was marked upon his hand from her chair, but she saw the woman nod.
Then I shall fulfill your desire, she said and turned to Rawiya. --Tell me, why are you here?
I do not know, Rawiya said, and held out her own unmarked hand.
At last, the woman said. --My desire is here. And she rose from the table taking the old man's hand in her right and Rawiya's in her left and led them out of the room down to another passageway, with a door upon the end that led into a bedroom richly decorated in red and gold.
Bathe and make yourself comfortable, she told Rawiya, and I shall be with you shortly. Then she left, taking the old man with her.
Rawiya was not foolish or easily deceived, but she possessed the same curious nature as her brother's that sought to discover all there was to be had in life and so she did as the woman requested. For it did not seem unlikely that her desire could be found here, and soon she had shed her clothes and waited upon the bed.
When the woman returned, she carried a key which she set upon a table near the bed. She smiled at Rawiya.
To have one's end in such a pleasing manner, she said, is a blessing beyond compare. Then she embraced Rawiya and they spent the night in all sorts of delights and pleasure.
It was some time later when Rawiya awoke. She knew not what the hour was, for there was no way of telling dawn or dusk in the cavern. The woman was gone and the bed was cold. Taking a red sheet and a pair of silken pants lying upon a chair, she clad herself as best she could and grabbed the key off the table, for such a thing had to be useful.
She opened the door and made her way down the passageway, using the arrow on her hand to guide her. She followed it through twisting corridors, past locked doors, never once hearing a single sound besides her own footsteps padding softly on the stone floors. At last, she stopped when the compass did, the arrow spinning wildly once and then stopped forever upon her hand. In front of her was a locked door and she tried the key. It shifted in her hand to match the keyhole and turned easily.
The door opened into a dark room, containing nothing but large, locked ornate boxes of different designs and colors. Some were faded and coated in layers of dust, while others appeared freshly painted and gleamed in the dim light. Her curiosity driving her further, she walked over to one of the newest ones and tried the same key in the lock. It opened as well.
Inside was the old man, now dead, with lips pulled back to reveal a row of sharp teeth. His hands lay clasped before him and she could now see what lay illustrated upon his left hand. It was a casket.
This was his desire, the woman said behind Rawiya. She held up her left hand to reveal the same design. --And it is mine as well.
But it is not mine, replied Rawiya.
No, the woman said, for your happiness will not come for many years. For until you desire it, you shall not know death. Those such as myself and the one before you, we have lived for far too long. You are young still, and will be for centuries to come.
And Rawiya knew sorrow and joy at this, for she had found her destination even if her desire lay far in her future. The knowledge of what she must do now also came to her, and she smiled at the woman. --Come then, and know your end.
The box before her was a bright red and blue and as she helped the woman descend into it, Rawiya felt a lightness in her soul that she had never felt before.
So it came to pass that children were no longer born with the knowledge of what they should seek in life and had to make their way as all others in life did, uncertain of any success in what they did and guided by nothing more than what humanity could provide. And though many viewed it as a curse, a sign that man had grown corrupt and ungodly, others saw it as a blessing. For you should never know where your end may lie until your choices have brought you there and you must answer for them on your own.