Through the Sands of Southern Deserts
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
Part 2 appeared
in issue 161.
|part 3 of 4|
* * *
They attacked when the merchants fell asleep, weary from the long trip and the intense heat that governed the No Man’s Desert. They crept into the circle of wagons and killed many of the Estratians, cutting their throats as they slept. One man woke and screamed before choking on his own tongue under a murderous hand. The merchants woke and a quick and vicious battle broke out, but the travellers were exhausted and half-asleep, and were no match for professional murderers and cutthroats.
The agonized screams of those dying under the assailants’ broadswords and battle-axes filled dark hearts with terrible joy. Only one man defended himself and managed to kill three of their pack before they finally restrained him, laughing and swearing at his futile attempts to drive his sword through them all. By then a few of their comrades had already started to empty the wagons of the gold and the goods, and set fires to them. They tossed the struggling man into the raging flames and laughed as he disappeared, screaming at the top of his lungs...
* * *
The heat was incredible and even the General’s dried up, seemingly tireless body, was slowly succumbing to it. He lowered his head and forced himself to take yet another step forward, over the scorching sands, over the scarred and burnt earth. His faithful steed followed, but even this resilient animal was nearing the very limits of its powers. The blazing sun hung low over their heads and it burnt, it burnt the air and the earth, and it burnt right through their skin.
Aezubah halted then, suddenly aware of someone’s presence. A man-shaped shadow emerged from the heat, a dark spot against the sun-baked canvas of the desert world.
“Who are you?” the words were quiet as they painfully passed through his dry and broken lips.
The image stood a few paces away. Aezubah’s hazed eyes noted the familiar features of the shade’s face: a sharp inquisitive gaze, thin lips buried in a long and grim face... Then the shadow spoke.
“I am Vengeance,” it said.
The air rippled as the words seeped into it and the General was not sure whether it was because of the heat or something else, something unnamed.
“Have you come for me?” there was a hint of hope in his voice.
“No, friend,” the familiar shape replied quietly. “Not yet.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I am Vengeance,” the shadow of a man repeated. “I come to claim what’s mine.”
“What is it that is yours?”
“The lives of twelve men. A terrible deed was done and the cries of those that died reached my ears in the underworld. I’m here to avenge the husbands, the fathers, and the brothers that were lost to greed.”
“Then go,” Aezubah waved his hand, wanting to chase the ghostly image away. His eyes were blank as he repeated, “Go and claim the men, go claim their blood. Why do you talk to me instead?”
The shadow studied him closely for a few moments before replying. “Because I need you,” it said finally.
“Why?” the General snapped wearily, anger building up inside his weakened and burned body. “Why me?”
The image laughed silently and then moved closer. Slowly it merged with Aezubah’s own shadow and disappeared within it.
“How can the shadow of a man wield a sword?” it asked, its thunderous voice echoing in the General’s head. “How can the shadow of a man be loose of its master?”
“I am but a shadow myself,” Aezubah whispered. He pointed to the vultures circling the sky high above him. “I will be dead before the day is done.”
“I will give you my strength and it is a strength that can cripple entire nations,” came the response. “I will help you along the way and I will lead you through the darkness when it falls. But it is you who must spill the blood.”
“Why?” he wanted to scream, but the question was nothing more than a painful grunt.
There was a moment of silence during which Aezubah could only hear his own heavy breathing, as the air struggled into his scalded lungs.
“Is there anything else that you know how to do?”
The question hung in the still air for a long time. The aging General lowered his head and closed his eyes.
“All right,” he said finally. He raised his head and his eyes were now filled with a strange light. Dropping his weary hand to the hilt of the sword he felt a surge of new strength overwhelming him.
“How do I find them?” he asked, his voice clear and strong.
“The murderers reek of innocent blood,” came the quiet reply from within. “Follow their scent. Kill the wretches. Bring me down on their heads!”
* * *
“He’s still out there,” the wretch said as he looked over his shoulder and fixed his eyes on the horizon.
“Can you see him?”
“No. But I can feel the bastard’s eyes on me.”
The second of the men spat with disgust and urged his horse to run faster. His companion followed, lowering his head until his face was hidden in the steed’s long, flowing mane. He wanted to shrink in the saddle, to disappear altogether, so that their terrible pursuer would not be able to find him. The hooves of their galloping horses made little noise as the crossed the sands of No Man’s Desert, only soft thuds that even the gust of wind could silence. So close, so close, the wretch thought to himself, over one more dune and the rest of their pack will be there...
“Do you see him?” his comrade bellowed without turning his head.
It was then that he came, emerging like a ghost from beneath the sand at full speed. His short horse snapped its monstrous teeth at the two men, lowered its head and launched its body straight at them. The two cutthroats both halted their steeds in sudden surprise, shouting in fear.
The first of the men pulled on the reins so hard that his horse rose to its hind legs with an anguished neigh. The pale rider and his fire-breathing steed had already covered half the distance between them. A long sword appeared in the hand of the rider and when his horse collided with the two wretches, he swung fast and hard, severing the head of one of them. Twisting his wasted and burnt body in the saddle in the next moment, he blocked the blow that the second of the cutthroats mustered against him. The triumphant scream of the wretch turned into a horrifying cry of pain as the ghost plunged a long knife into his chest at the same time as he parried his strike.
The blinding sun looked on with disinterest. The still air rippled as the two men fell dead to the ground, blood seeping into the soft sands of the No Man’s Desert. Their steeds ran off terrified, their saddles empty. The ghost sheathed his sword, turned the horse around and rode off just as fast as he came, disappearing behind the dunes...
* * *
Five men gathered in the darkness of the No Man’s Desert, each coming from a different direction. They slowly climbed down from the saddles and looked suspiciously at one another. No word was said for a long time. The horses stayed close to their masters as if sensing their uneasiness. The men looked towards the horizon from time to time, clearly waiting for someone.
“They’re not coming,” one of them broke the silence finally.
No one else said anything for a long time.
“What do we do now?”
“We camp here,” the leader of the pack, a tall and thin Bandikoyan cutthroat said. “Unpack the horses, we’ll spend the night. No fire, though, the bastard can be anywhere.”
“Let him come!”
“Don’t be stupid, Red Eyes,” the man snapped. “He’s no man.”
“Sand demon, maybe. I’ve heard of them.”
“Me too. Used to be a whole lot of them before.”
“What are they?”
“S’pposed to be old marsh demons, like them ones they have in Yytia. This place used be full of swamps and water, there was more of them here than fleas. Now they’re mostly dead, killed by the heat and the sand. But some survived, transformed, they say. They live in the sand, y’know? Like some sort of giant worms, they tunnel their way around beneath the desert. Only come up to eat once in a while.”
“Flesh, any kind. Corpses and such. But some, they say, some get a tasting for live human flesh.”
“You reckon one of them is stalking us?”
“Could be more than one. How else do you explain it?”
“Thoryk, Hangman, Guunter, Cat, One-Eye, and now Lefty and Noose. That’s seven of us dead. Good men, too. Good soldiers, could handle their own.”
“How else do you explain it?”
“But why us, why now?”
“They’re animals, they follow food, predators, y’know?”
“They follow fear.”
“I ain’t afraid.”
“Don’t talk bull, we’re all dropping our britches. Why would you be different?”
“It’s all started after the caravan. Gods are punishing us.”
“Don’t talk bull, I tell you! Ain’t no gods or nothin’.”
“But there’s sand demons? I reckon if they’re real, why not the gods?”
“Even if the gods are real, they don’t care. Would you?”
“We spilled too much blood...”
“Too much blood? Bugger off back to your mamma if you don’t like it, Slick.”
“Too late to feel guilty now, ain’t it? What’s done is done.”
“Yeah, and anyway, I seen ’im that night, butchering the merchants, dancing in the blood, burning the bodies, and all. Saw that smile on his face when he put the ear-necklace on. Remember that, Slick?”
“I was drunk, I don’t know what I did...”
“Drunk as a goat, were you now? Sure were!”
“Smeared blood all over yourself, remember that? Dug the eyeballs out of the old man before killing him. Remember that, you sick prick? Now you feel guilty?”
“I hope they come and get you first, Slick, you’re one sick bastard, y’know?”
“Shut your holes, the whole lot of you’s! I was drunk, I’m telling you! No way of knowing what a man’ll do when he’s drunk.”
“But you’re sober now, ain’t ya? And filling your britches like the rest of us cause you know you’ll get the worst of it when it comes!”
“Alright, shut your mouths, all of you! No point talking about this crap, ’cause it don’t matter! This ain’t no vengeance, forget about it. No one lived through the night, we made damn sure of that. Been no one around there so who would come after us?”
“But it all started after the caravan.”
Copyright © 2005 by Slawomir Rapala