The Longtail sniffed the twilight air. The familiar tang of home borne on the mournful wind weaving across the desert tickled his nostrils. He could taste the faint scent of Red City several miles away, clinging on the air currents like strands of spider silk. Light from the Grand Bridge cast a soft halo over the city, a steady beacon in the dim and muted landscape, as daylight surrendered its sovereignty to the encroaching dark
He was sitting on a large piece of flat rock, gaze upon the city, mind running everywhere and nowhere. He was waiting for nightfall before crossing the last stretch of the desert to the City. Traversing the desert by day was unwise for a lone traveler on foot.
His thoughts turned back to his journeys, as it often did. One thing he had discovered early on, was that there were far more Skybridges than anyone, the priesthood included, realised existed in the Red Desert. Most of them rest in remote places, keeping vigil to the last faint echoes of the Old Gods’ memories
When he left the stone garden of crystal flowers, he had taken the Skybridge to a landing several days away from Red City. The Skybridge was in a cavern that was part of an ancient underground river. That river ran through harsh mountainous regions that formed an impassable barrier that cradled the eastern border of the city.
There were little reasons he could see that would require a Skybridge in such a place, a river buried so deep beneath the earth that it took days to get above ground. The remote location suited him though. It gave him a way to come and go as he pleased without the priesthood breathing down his neck.
That isolation was working against him now. He was weary. Fatigue seeped deep into his bones, and the thought of the long trek between him and a soft bed somewhere casted a pall over his mood. He slumped onto the ground after clambering out of the Skybridge and was asleep in an instant, the damp chill in the cave soothing his tired limbs and the murmuring rush of the river pulling him into oblivion.
He awoke with aches in his back from where the rocky ground had dug into him. His throat was dry and hunger gnawed away in his middle. Joints groaning, he forced his stiff body up. He waddled over to where he had kept supplies away for his return, wincing with each step as a dull throbbing pain stabbed through his overused feet.
Ravenous, he fell upon the rations with an intensity that rivaled a hungry animal. He closed his eyes for a moment as the edge in his middle abated. Forcing himself to get up, he then shouldered the supply pack and began the long trip back to Red City.
It was difficult. The entrance to the underground river was high up in the mountains. The passage out was marked with steep slopes and sheer walls that challenged his aching body. The crystal he had taken as souvenir turned out to be a huge boon. It was a handy source of light he could use to see in the dark.
After days of exhausting travel, he had exited from the caves into the fog ridden peaks of the eastern mountains. This was the most dangerous part of the trek. He had almost plummeted to his death trying to descend the mountains the first time the Skybridge had taken him here. Many of the idle rich of Red City had risked the cliffs of the eastern mountains and returned in body bags.
The Longtail had spent months after that near death laying out ropes and hammering iron pins into the mountain walls to make the trip down safer. Without that groundwork, he did not think he would have survived this trip with his worn out body. It took two days to descend the mountain, where he navigated with slow, deliberate caution, climbing down by day and shivering in the cold darkness at night.
He needed to regroup. Think and plan for the next several months. The trip to the Cloud Ocean’s moon had almost been his last. He had fallen into a novice trap, driven by his insatiable curiosity and stumbling headlong into an unknown area without adequate preparations. He could well had been marooned on that moon with no way back.
Even so. Even so. The signs of the mysterious Others he had found on the moon was now a hook in his mind. He would have no rest until he found out more. He planned on heading into the city, gather what he needed and spend a month or two preparing a second expedition into the garden of the crystal flowers. That was his intention.
He watched the last rays of daylight disappear from the horizons as the night engulfed the skies, spreading its wings and shadowing the land. Gathering his gear and his thoughts, he continued on his way, keeping his senses open and alert.
The desert was not safe at night. It was cold, and the chill winds could sap a Longtail’s strength, stealing the last warmth of life from him. Creatures hunt under the cloak of darkness; snakes, insects and small animals that strike with fang and poison.
Daylight in the Red Desert was far more dangerous however, when the more formidable denizens of the arid wasteland awaken to resume their cycle of death and domination.
Chief amongst these were the Floppers, as the locals of Red City slums called them. Creatures smaller than the Longtail’s palms, they were insects but behaved like plants. When they found a patch of ground they liked, they burrowed in and stay rooted until they had to move again.
During the night, they curled up to protect themselves from the cold and was harmless. In the day they spreaded the top half of their bodies out onto the ground.
That upper body bore an uncanny resemblance to the desert floor. The camouflage was almost perfect, and the unlucky creature that stepped on it was stung with a potent venom. Death came in minutes, after a painful paralysis where the toxin burned and scoured the victim's body, causing them to flop around in involuntary spasms. Hence the name.
To the Longtail however, it was the datang that he was most wary of. It was a small plant that could grow anywhere in the Red Desert, it’s fleshy stem storing nutrients that allowed it to survive for years.
At night, as with most of the Red Desert’s inhabitants, they slept and were harmless. During the day, their blood red flowers bloomed and released….something. It was not scent because it was odorless, undetectable until it was too late. It caused the most pleasurable daydreams and the hapless creature caught in the powerful grip of a fevered mind seek out more of it, moving to where the lure was the strongest.
There, the prey lay down in a haze of delirious bliss. They slept, dreaming of their heart’s deepest desires, folded in the datang’s embrace as the plants slowly grew it’s roots over and into their bodies, draining them into dry husks.
Datang seeds were even more potent in producing that corrupted bliss. They commanded a hefty price in the black market. Many Longtails, especially those from the slums, risked their lives in datang fields harvesting the seeds where the slightest whiff could mean the end of their sanity.
Or perhaps it was the datang that harvested Longtails. Datang fields were a macabre sight, their beautiful flowers blooming amidst the littered bodies of creatures that succumbed to their seduction.
The Longtail neared the city as the night deepened. He could see the slums outside the city walls. That was where he was headed. He did not intend to enter Red City itself. Some years ago he had found an outpost of the Old Gods. He had hoped to discover traces that would lead to his father. The foundations of the outpost had been through serious erosion and the structure began to collapse almost as soon as he set foot in it, sinking into the sands.
He had managed to salvage a few archives before everything fell apart but found little of interest. He had taken one of the archives and sold it to the Temple. The Temple offered a great bounty on all recovered artifacts of the Old Ones and he had thought to fund his travels with the bounty.
He regretted turning the archive over to the temple. The temple was jealous about the Old Ones’ legacies. They had started keeping tabs on him whenever he entered the city, and if they found out the extent of what he knew and where he had been, he feared he would never be free of the temple’s grasp, especially if they knew who his father was.
He would get everything he needed from the slums outside the city. When Red City began rebuilding after the Great Fire they had took the chance to push the poor and the sick out beyond the walls of the city in temporary shelters, in an effort to “cleanse” the city.
That was a mistake. The slums had metastasized into something the city could not control. Trade, illicit or otherwise, flowed in great quantities through the slum. Gangs, drawn by the lure of easy coins, had sprung up that challenged the city guard's authority and each other.
There were no walls around the slums, and the Longtail could slip in easily. He had to be careful not to cross any gang territories, but he could stay near the main market area, where he would catch the merchants during the day. He could lose himself in the crowd, get what he needed and be on his way.
Morning came. The Longtail had reached the edge of Red City’s slum in the early hours of dawn, and had slipped into the market square when he heard the sounds of the merchants rousing. The crowd came, and he soon found himself jostling in a sea of Longtails.
The slum was the colorful part of the Red City. That was accurate both in a figurative and literal sense. The streets were tight and narrow, where hawkers crammed all available space with stalls and goods, of every size and shape. Bright banners hung over the stalls, each trying to outdo the other in grabbing attention.
It was an assault on the senses. The traders shouted and tried to drown each other out. The cacophony rolled over and crashed into the Longtail, becoming a giant white noise that buzzed in his ears. Mouthwatering smells from unhealthy fried food mixed with the wet earthy smell of churned mud and the odor of wastes permeated the market.
He stopped beside a stall, where a pinched looking trader stared at him in suspicion. The Longtail picked up a set of heat stones, that can be used to release heat and light when struck with vigour. It would be very useful in the crystal flower garden. He scooped up a few and started haggling with the trader with hand gestures. He got it down to four iron coins which was a little on the high side, but still a decent price.
He dug out the coins and dropped them into the trader's hands. They disappeared into the trader's pockets with a speed bordering on magic. He turned to walk away and something sharp pricked his back. A presence stepped in close and whispered. “Keep moving.”
Adrenaline pulsed through the Longtail's veins. His heart pounded. Fear rose and his senses screamed for him to run. He casted his eyes about for escape.
A large hand clamped tight over his arm. The stranger had read his intentions and his knife pushed harder, just a little, reminding him to move. The Longtail walked.
There were no more words from the stranger. He dug his knife in towards the direction he wanted the Longtail to go. They meandered through the crowds before passing an alleyway out of sight of the main market. It was dirty and dank, dripping with filth. The knife dug in hard towards the alley.
Alarm rang like gongs in his head. The malignant ill intent was a palpable force. His body tensed as he prepared to break free from the heavy grip on his arm. Sensing his purpose, the stranger shoved the Longtail into the alley, and then a blunt force struck him from behind. His head burst with a soundless explosion and his vision turned white. Darkness then overwhelmed him.
A dull throbbing pain speared his skull, waking the Longtail. He cracked his eyes open. Darkness. He found himself lying on uneven stone ground, cold and damp sleeping into his bones. He seemed to have gotten a talent for waking in cold, dark places.
The Longtail sighed and took stock of his surroundings. He had been thrown into a cell, bare except for a bucket. A stout wooden door separated him from his freedom. The walls and floor were solid rock, and looked to be part of a natural pocket that someone had enlarged. The air was wet and there was a steady drip of water somewhere.
He struggled upright, trying to clear his head. He remembered being knocked out while trying to escape from that stranger with a knife to his back. His equipment was gone. The stranger must have taken them and then carried him here.
The Longtail closed his eyes and sighed. This was no simple robbery. The desert air was hungry for moisture and sucked away any hint of it in an instant. There was only one place he knew of near the Red City where there was enough water that the air could stay wet.
He was in the Temple. It was the only place fitted with running water, because of that ridiculous garden around the Grand Bridge. He, and his journal, was in the hands of the priesthood.
Mauf stood over the rails on the deck of the Sand Strider, willing with all his might to keep the world around him from spinning. The capture of the Vikhrut was pure exhilaration. Heat and fire fueled his racing heart when he watched Elder Nimi’s taming of the Vikhrut. The journey over the past two weeks itself had been pure misery however. The Sand Strider’s traverse had been anything but smooth.
Keeping the Vikhrut going in one direction was a challenge, it appeared. Their sense of direction and navigation was alien to a Longtail. One of the sailors had told Mauf that Vikhruts migrate across the entirety of the Dune Sea, and a school of Vikhruts on that mighty journey was a sight to behold. From a safe distance of course. It also meant that Vikhruts had an instinctive need to return to that route. Out in the open dunes, constant course correction is required.
The entire experience for Mauf was akin to being on a horse carriage on an especially bumpy road that kept making turns. The ship moved in fits and starts, dragged by a living creature that had a will of its own, and the course corrections meant that the ship never travelled in a straight line. Mauf had never been so dizzied in his life.
If there was one good that came from this, it was that he was in too much misery to care what the crew thought of him. He had not missed the amused side glances, or the elbowing and snickering amongst the crew. There had been the odd cruelty once in awhile. A trip of the feet, or a sudden shove from the back. It was infuriating and he felt humiliated.
He had his revenge however. His body rebelled against sudden and violent motion, and this rebellion took the form of a voluminous projectile from his guts. The disgust and fury on his antagonists’ drenched faces gave him a grim sense of satisfaction. The crew left him alone soon after, although their barbed words follow his back.
Mauf wondered at this lack of respect for the priesthood. He could see the great deference these ruffians had for Elder Nimi in the way they took her orders and behaved around her. It was not for her status as an Elder but for her rank as Pilot. Even Phael, an apprentice Pilot, commanded respect equal to the captain who ran the day to day affairs of the ship. The Temple's influence was thin on board the Sand Strider. The hierarchy here favoured practical skills with Vikhruts and sailing, it seemed.
Footsteps sounded behind him. “Mauf,” Phael called out, her tone clipped and imperious.
That rankled him. He did not have the patience for this right now. He turned around and fixed her with a red-eyed glare. “What.”
Phael was taken aback. His voice came out as a growl, low and rough.
“You look terrible,” she said at last. He looked at her and did not reply.
A soft laugh escaped her. “Elder Nimi wants to talk to you Mauf. You don't want to keep her waiting too long.” She paused and said, “Go chew some lin roots. It helps.”
Mauf held up a half-chewed root, short and tubular with a slight pungent scent. “I did.”
Something about the way Mauf spoke irritated Phael. Who did this rat think he is, she thought to herself. She gave an unsympathetic shrug. “She's waiting in her cabin.”
Phael fell in step behind him. She glanced at him in curiosity. “This is your first time on a sandship?”
“Yes.” Mauf didn't want to nod his head. It made his nausea worse.
“Your family sent you to the priesthood for your vocation then." Phael asked, making conversation, thinking she might be able to hurry Mauf up if he was distracted enough from his misery.
Mauf had a grim, determined look on his face, forcing his stomach to cooperate with sheer force of will. “I was nameless. I don't know my family.” Mauf was focused on his footsteps.
Phael turned and widened her eyes, then caught herself. She had assumed Mauf was from a well-to-do family. Entering the priesthood required knowing the letters, and low-born families could never afford that.
The rest of the way passed in silence, with the occasional stop while Mauf settled his stomach. Phael knocked on the doors of Elder Nimi’s cabin and showed Mauf in when Nimi called out. Nimi took one look at Mauf and glanced back to Phael. Phael shrugged.
“Sit,” Nimi motioned Mauf into a chair. “And if you throw up here, I will wrap you up and hang you over the side of the ship for the rest of the trip.” Mauf swallowed.
“I’m coming straight to the point,” Nimi said in crisp tones after Mauf had seated himself. Phael had retreated to one corner of the room, keeping a close watch on Mauf.
“Why are you here? You are quite useless and I had to have Phael babysit you. I don't see how you could help with the expedition. You have no skills I can use.” Nimi did not mince her words.
Nimi leaned back into her chair, studying Mauf. “Tell me why Lemnu wants you here.”
Mauf was puzzled and wary. He felt like he was about to step into a trap but he didn't know of what kind. “To find out more about the Prophecy,” he said in slow, careful tones. That was what Elder Lemnu had said, and Mauf was sure Elder Nimi knew that.
When Nimi remained silent, staring at him, he tried to guess what Nimi wanted to know. “We don't know much about the nature of the Prophecy. The records we have did not give much more than what Elder Lemnu told you.”
Nimi was not looking impressed. He took a breath. “The Tree Dwellers have records of their own,” he continued. “And we hope by examining their records we have a clearer understanding of the problem, and make plans that…..”
“Lemnu wouldn't send you if that was all. You are like his son. He wouldn't risk it,” Nimi cut in. “What is he really up to?”
Mauf looked flustered. He did not know where this was coming from, but he did not like it. “To save the city! Without the Tree Dwellers, we would not last more than a year!” Did Elder Lemnu not share his plans with Elder Nimi?
“Really? That's his motive? Concern for the well being of the city?” Nimi was close to sneering.
“Why not?” Mauf cried, angry at the smear upon Lemnu, understanding at last what Nimi meant. “Without the city, the library would be lost and all the wisdom of the Old Ones gone too!”
Nimi was silent for a minute. “And how do you intend to find out more from the Tree Dwellers. Who are you going to talk to?”
Mauf choked down his anger. Shouting at an Elder was disrespectful. “My apologies Elder.” Nimi waved it away.
“The Tree Dwellers have their own library,” He tried to calm himself as best as he could. “Elder Lemnu had placed a priest with them many years ago to share our knowledge. I was instructed to get in touch with him first.”
“Siv.” Mauf hesitated, then said “Communications with him have been sporadic of late.’
“We’re not sure. Elder Lemnu had instructed me to question him about his behaviour as well.”
Nimi fell silent, thinking. Then she said to Mauf, “You can go now. You will have an escort on the Jungle. And you will report to me whatever you report to Lemnu.” To Phael, she said “Phael, stay.”
Mauf nodded and stood. He gave Phael a quick glance, then wobbled his way out of Nimi’s room.
“Do you believe him, Elder?” Phael asked Nimi as she stepped over from her position.
There was a brief pause. “I do.” Then Nimi said in wry tones. “Saving his dusty tomes would be all Lemnu cared about.”
Nimi turned to face Phael. “We will need to make an adjustment to our course before heading into Howlstone. Tomorrow evening.”
“Yes, Elder. I will make preparations for you.”
Nimi shook her head. “I want you to do it Phael. It's time for you to take the next step.”
Phael paled, then flushed with excitement.
The Longtail’s ears swiveled. It was faint, but he could hear footsteps. Two sets of them. One was heavy with the strike of booted heel upon stone, almost drowning the soft whisper of another lighter tread.
He debated for an instant with himself on kicking the heavy wooden door to attract attention, but discarded the idea just as quick. The room he was in had seen better days. Neglect hung over the room like the cobwebs strung up across it’s walls. This place had not seen Longtail feet in many years. The footsteps might belong to his captors, or someone even more unsavory.
The Longtail waited, crouched and ready. Sure enough, the footsteps stopped in front of the door. There was a click of a key sliding in, and a thud as the door was unbarred. The heavy door swung open, and in the doorway stood two shadows. A male and a female, silhouetted by torchlight from the corridor behind.
He sprang. The male in the doorway reacted with unbelievable speed. He rushed forward with hands outstretched, intent on wrestling the Longtail onto the ground.
The Longtail just managed to duck to the side, feeling the scrape of the male’s knuckles across the side of his head. Lashing out his tail, he whipped it around the male’s leg. Planting his feet, he turned with his whole body and pulled! The male crashed face first into the ground behind him.
The Longtail turned to face the female. He rushed her. Freedom was just beyond.
“Did you find your father?” she spoke, her words suffused with warmth. He blinked in surprise and stopped in his tracks. How did she…?
That hesitation costed him. A hand reached from behind him and grasped his tail. The male yanked him back and pulling him onto the stony ground, knocking his breathe out. The male then fell on the Longtail, crushing him beneath a merciless grip, choking him.
A smooth and sultry voice came from the female. “Don't kill him Gor. I need him alive.” The male, Gor, eased up. Just enough so that the Longtail would not choke to death.
A pair of feet, booted in supple leather, came into view and the Longtail looked up. The female was older but beautiful, fur ringed in elaborate coils, every strand of hair in perfect place and dressed in rich, muted clothing.
Cold, icy fingers gripped his heart. The Longtail recognized her. She was one of the Elders. Imru. This was not good. She was dangerous, maybe the most dangerous of the temple Elders.
The Elder gave Gor a nod, and he hauled the Longtail up, pinning his arms in a painful twist behind him. The Elder studied him for a moment and pulled out a glowing crystal from under her cloak. The Longtail schooled his features into stillness. He could not afford to betray himself here.
Imru played with the crystal, and said “This is quite beautiful. Where did you get it? I do so love shiny things.” The Longtail was silent. He did not think Imru was here for the crystal; He saw no ornaments on Imru.
Imru gave a smile that did not reach her eyes. “You're not one for words are you? You didn't speak much the last time you came to the temple either.” She put the crystal away.
Imru continued speaking. “Tell me your name at least.” She put her hand to her mouth in mock surprise. “Oh but I forgot, your name had been taken away, had it not? With your father.” His heart sank. The Elder knew who he was and who his father was. There was a good chance he might not leave this place alive.
She pulled out something else. It was the Longtail's journal. He reached for it without thinking, and Gor pulled his arms even further back. The Longtail hissed in pain. Imru’s smile grew wider and she leaned in.
“There is so much we have to talk about,” she whispered. “The Skybridges you used. The places you have been to. The crystal flower. You found it didn't you? And you took back a souvenir.” she flipped the journal to the page with the illustration of the crystal flower.
She leaned back. “Where is your father?” The Longtail stared back at Imru. “And how is your mother, by the way? How long had it been since you went back to the farm.” There was an edge in her voice now. The Longtail tensed, but remained silent.
Without warning, Imru took the journal and slam it across the Longtail's face, hard. It took him by surprise, the journal smacked into his eye and snout. Stars burst in his vision and the world spun.
When his sight cleared, he saw Imru studying him with an unnerving intensity, as if she was looking into his soul. He looked back at her and held her gaze. The room was silent except for his labored breathing and the distant dripping of water.
After a long moment, Imru reached out caressed his cheeks. He almost jerked back in surprise but held himself stiff. She ran her fingers down the side of his neck, her touch light and intimate. Her fingers reached the collar of his cloak, and she pulled it open with a quick jerk, revealing a long, ugly burn scar across his throat.
She stroked the scar with her fingertips, her touch tender, and sighed. “No wonder you don't talk. What have you done to yourself, dear boy,” she said in a warm, mothering voice, such as his own mother might have used. A chill went down the Longtail’s spine and his fur stood up. He shivered despite himself. The malevolence was all the more threatening for its honey.
“Well, this does complicate things, doesn't it?” Imru stopped her caress midstroke and dug her claws into the Longtail's scarred throat. He winced. “We’ll make it easy for you then.” Her voice was low, all honey evaporated, leaving behind naked malice. “Yes or no. Answer my questions.” She pushed her claws in, making clear what she would do if the Longtail did not cooperate. The Longtail nodded.
The questions came like rapid fire. “Did you find your father?” He shook his head.
“Do you know where he is?” Another shake.
“Are you looking for him?” He nodded.
“Do you know what he's after?” A long moment passed. He could feel Imru's nails digging in, then gave a slow shake of his head. Sometimes he felt he knew, but other times, his father's actions baffled him.
Imru saw the uncertainty. “Do you…..want to know?” He narrowed his eyes and nodded, wondering where Imru is leading to.
She pitched her voice low. So low, the Longtail had to lean in to hear. “How much would you give to know where he is and what he is looking for?” What indeed? The Longtail would give a lot. He wanted answers. He wanted his father to answer for his actions.
Imru read his rage and resentment, and her lips blossomed into a beautiful, heartbreaking, and deadly smile.
Mauf lifted his head. He felt heavy and tired. His tongue was dry and swollen. He tried to swallow, but all he could feel were grains of fine dust from the Dune Sea on his tongue. The sun flared against his vision, and he blinked away the headache that arose. Even his eyeballs were dry, and his eyelids scrapped across his aching eyes.
He could hear Elder Nimi shouting orders at the surviving Longtails. He wondered at her strength. How could she still function after everything? It took all his strength to get to solid ground. He could not stand if his life depended on it. And Phael. Oh poor Phael.
She had left Elder Nimi’s quarters that day wound tight with tension. Mauf was outside the Elder’s quarters, trying to push his stomach back down to where it was supposed to be. Phael stepped out not too long after, her face flushed with emotion. She gave him a distracted smile and bounded away, her steps light with a restrained exhilaration.
Mauf learnt later that Elder Nimi had given Phael the task of driving the Vikhrut in the last legs of the journey into Howlstone. Phael had been a bundle of nervous energy at that time. Mauf understood that well; he had felt the same excitement, responsibility, and overwhelming stress of not wanting to disappoint and mess up.
He thought back to the conversation he had with Phael before she was to take the reins. After a full week of calm travel, they had moored the ship outside of the canyon that led to Howlstone. Elder Nimi had felt safe enough to give Phael her first try at driving a Vikhrut, a task that would have the apprentice Pilot guide the Vikhrut through the area that led to Howlstone.
Mauf was not keen about this turn of events. The region was more rocks than sand. The rocky archipelago was filled with craggy protrusions, some of which were large enough to be islands. Many were plateaus with cliff walls several meters high, soaring high above the Sand Strider, and twisted into fantastical shapes that had Mauf wondering if they would break off and crush them as they sailed past.
From where they moored, Mauf could also see how….angry the rocks were. They looked rough and sharp, more than ready to rip the Sand Strider to kindling if they got too close. Some of the corridors were narrow and the Dune Sea eddied and swirled through them. The wind here could be forceful and when it rushed through the narrower stretches of the peninsula, it howled like a tortured animal. He could see how the city got its name.
“It looks very narrow,” He said to Phael in a dubious voice. He had found her by the bow of the ship studying what lay before them, and decided to join her.
Phael shot him an irritated glance. “The Vikhruts avoid hard ground by instinct. We just need to point them in the right direction. It's easier to steer them here than in the open dunes.”
A moment passed, and he asked in soft tones, “Do you feel ready?” He was thinking back to the first time he was given a task by Elder Lemnu. It was a simple task, translating a section of an archive with calculations, nothing like what Phael had been asked to do. He was so anxious at doing it right that he worked through the night and the next day going over the translations again and again, obsessing over nothing. He didn't complete the work in the end. It was an amazing act of self sabotage.
Phael took it the wrong way though. She turned to glare at him, growling as she poked him in the chest. “I’m not like you slug. I’m prepared for anything! And I’m quite tired of your constant doubting. Go bother someone else!”
Mauf’s mind blanked out at her hostility. A small knot of panic bloomed in his guts. Words rose in his chest and clawed to get out, but all the different things he wanted to say clashed and collided with each other and the only thing that came out through his mouth was a garbled mess. “Wwha..I..huh..”
Phael stalked off, leaving him to heave a heavy sigh. How was it that some Longtails always knew what to say, and in such eloquent fashions? He didn't know. It seemed like something out of reach for him. A wave of longing for his books and the temple hit him, and riding on that, that familiar, bitter tang of feeling deficient in some way.
While the crew had been about getting the ship ready for the turn, Elder Nimi had stepped out of her cabin to observe, arms folded across her chest. Phael had noticed that and turned to face her. Nimi gave Phael a slight nod, and Phael turned back to her task, back straight and head held high.
The crew fixing the lines that held the Vikhrut raised a flag, signaling that they were ready. Phael hitched her gear around herself tight and leapt off the ship’s prow with the same athletic grace that Nimi had before her.
Mauf ran after with shaky legs, still not recovered from his ordeal on the ship, and leaned over to witness Phael’s trial. She had executed a flawless leap from the Sand Strider and captured the line that connected to the little skiff set up to drive the Vikhrut. A nervous tension ran through the crew. Phael was untried, and a mistake could cause the Vikhrut to go into a frenzy and tear the ship apart.
Phael rode the line and landed with sure-footed grace onto the skiff. She tied her harness to the skiff, securing herself with quick , economical movements. Then she lifted the drummer’s hammer. The moment grew heavy with anticipation, and not a little fear, as the crew watched Phael stand in front of the drums.
She began pounding, her rhythm strong and sure. The drumbeats stirred the Vikhrut, and all aboard the ship could feel the shifting of the sands beneath the Sand Strider from its waking. Phael continued drumming, urging the Vikhrut to move and pointed it towards the narrow canyon walls towards Howlstone. The Sand Strider shuddered as the Vikhrut heaved against it’s leash and began pulling the ship towards their destination. The crew let out a single cheer and moved back to their positions. Nimi lowered her arms and went back below decks, satisfied.
Mauf let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding. From the crew’s reaction, it seemed as if Phael had been successful with her attempt and everything was going according to plan. He watched as the Sand Strider drew closer towards canyon walls. He still felt a vestigial fear, as if the Vikhrut would smash the ship against the rockface and send them all to their doom.
He was jolted back to the present when a crew member walked over to him and tossed him a bag. The sailor, his weather-beaten face lined with deep-seated exhaustion, said in a voice like gravel, “ ‘Hup, Priest. Pilot Nimi be wanting us to move ‘fore sun gets too low.”
Mauf grabbed the bag and hauled it over his shoulders. He looked over the rugged terrain. “Where are we going?” He croaked through parched lips.
The sailor shrugged. “Howlstone, most like. Death for us out here iffen we stay too long. No shelter, no food, no water.”
A tinge of despair entered Mauf’s voice “Is it even possible to get there on foot?”
“Gotta try. No other choice.” The sailor turned and left. Mauf found the sailor’s stoicism irritating. He was right though. There was no choice and their situation won’t be improved by staying here. Sighing, Mauf straightened, slinging the bag over his shoulders and his mind returning to relive the memories of the last few hours.
The travel through the canyon had been uneventful for the most part. It was as Phael had said. The Vikhrut pulling them had gone through the canyon, avoiding the rocks by instinct. The ride had been smoother than out in the open dunes if anything, because there was no need for Phael to fight the Vikhrut's natural instinct to go where it wanted.
They could see the city of Howlstone when calamity struck. Hidden in plain sight, camouflaged so well that nobody saw it coming, a mountain in front of them launched itself off the air and landed near the Sand Strider. It was a Rock Toad, and the size of its gargantuan girth sent a shockwave that ripped through the ship, lifting the Sand Strider up into the air and coming back down with a crash. Longtails were swept off their feet and thrown overboard, sinking into the Dune Sea’s eternal embrace.
Mauf found himself studying the Rock Toad with a detached curiosity. He would break into a million pieces in panic otherwise, and his mind had fled to a place of comfort. It had a warty, rock like hide that blended perfectly into the background, and a smooth, sluglike underbelly that only saw the sun when it revealed itself. It was also enormous. The Vikhrut that pulled the Sand Strider had loomed over the flagship and the Rock Toad dwarfed the Vikhrut. It's thick forearm was as big as the Sand Strider.
For most of its life, Mauf had read, the Rock Toad hibernated, looking for all intent and purposes like part of the landscape. It slept and floated along the Dune Sea. No one knew how a creature that size could stay afloat on the Dune Sea, and no one had been able to study one either. The Rock Toad had landed near enough that Mauf could see signs of small plant growth that took root on the creature's back during its long sleep. It only surfaced when there was prey nearby, such as themselves.
Or rather, it was the Vikhrut that caught the Rock Toad’s attention. It turned towards the Vikhrut. Sensing its danger, it tried to swim away as quick as it could. The Rock Toad unfurled two feelers on its head, tipped with a claw like appendage and whipped it into the sand, the feelers flying through the air in a blur with a thunderous crack. It missed
The Rock Toad was undeterred. It launched itself into the air once more, and landed further down the canyon in front of the Vikhrut. It shot its two hunting feelers into the sand again, one of the feeler’s claws slamming into the skiff where Phael was, digging into the sand and catching the Vikhrut.
Mauf watched in stupefied horror as the feelers rammed through the skiff with Phael on board. The force of the blow killed her in an instant, smearing her into a paste.
Then he had no more thoughts for her as the Rock Toad pulled the Vikhrut out from under the sand where it had been burrowing, lifting the Sand Strider with it. The Rock Toad, feeling the extra weight of the Sand Strider, extended its forearm and grasped the chains that had held the Vikhrut prisoner. With a casual flick of its wrist, the Rock Toad broke the chains and tossed it aside, the force of the motion heaving the Sand Strider into the canyon walls, smashing the ship.
Lifting the Vikhrut, wriggling and struggling in desperation for its life, the Rock Toad dropped it into its maw and swallowed its prize whole. Satisfied, it turned its massive bulk and bounded away.
The crew of the shattered Sand Strider struggled to survive. Many of them were killed outright when the Sand Strider was dashed into the rock cliffs, their bodies crushed by the debris. Still more were thrown overboard into the Dune Sea. Those who were lucky landed in parts shallow enough for them to force their way from the sand onto solid ground.
Mauf did not remember how he survived. He remembered clutching onto a piece of wood that somehow floated on the Dune Sea instead of sinking in. He must have been pulled in by one of the crew while he was unconscious.
The ship’s captain bellowed, bringing Mauf back into the present once more. That voice would put a trumpet to shame, Mauf mused. Elder Nimi had gone ahead with a scouting party and the surviving crew were now ready to set off. He heaved his pack, lifted his weary legs and trudged along, wondering who will survive this journey and if this would be his last.