Damp chill permeated the still air in the stone cell, soaking deep into his bones and gathering as condensation upon the walls, dripping onto the floor in a steady trickle. It was the only sound to accompany the Longtail in his captivity, aside from his own breathing.
He wasn’t sure for how long he had been locked up since he last saw the Elder and the brute that accompanied her. They had not bothered to leave a light, and he had no way of telling time. It must have been days at least; the gnawing in his middle had long since passed from hunger to numbness.
The clammy air hadn’t done his ribcage any good. It seeped into the bruising he took when he was swept away by the torrential rainfall in that forbidding moon orbiting the Cloud Ocean. Grunting at the dull throbbing pain in his ribs, the Longtail forced himself to stand and stretch his legs. He was dizzy from hunger, but he had to move to keep his body from wasting and the cold air from stealing warmth from his body.
Shuffling towards the door, he lifted an unsteady arm and ran his hands over the varnished wood. He leaned his shoulders on the door and heaved, pushing against the door for the upteempth time since he was captured in the forlorn hope of forcing it open. The solid iron plated door was held in place with a despairing sturdiness, and did not budge even a little bit.
The Longtail heaved a sigh. The door must have cost a fortune in maker’s fee and materials. Most doors and windows in the Red Desert were thin wooden boards padded with cloth in between, or just long strips of cloth that provided some privacy, if not much in the way of security. Whatever the Elder used this room for must be important and valuable.
Which made him wonder what they wanted from him. The Longtail saw no such value in himself. The only thing they might want from him was his father’s journal, which the Elder already had. If they wanted to visit wrath upon him for his father’s sins, he would have been hauled up before the Temple Courts already. Yet, here he languished.
Leaning against the door, he slumped down and closed his eyes. The imprisonment was beginning to eat away at his sanity. Just as his mind was drifting off into that strange limbo state of being in solitary confinement, he caught the sound of booted heel upon stone. The Longtail froze, wondering if his ears were playing tricks on him. Getting up, he put his ears to the door and listened. The soft echoes of boots sounded through the door, faint but clear. No, not a trick of his ears. He slipped to the side of the doorway, keeping his movements soft and quiet. The boots stopped. The Longtail crouched low.
There was a loud thud as the iron bar on the other side was thrown back. The Longtail tensed.
The door flew open with a loud bang, stunning him. A burning torch was shoved in his face. The Longtail staggered back, blinded by the glare of the torch. He fell, then his breath burst out in an explosive gasp as a booted foot slammed into his chest. He struggled, trying to get the foot off, but the booted foot pushed even harder, almost crushing his sternum.
Blinking away the glare, he saw Gor looming over him, the flickering torch shadowing him in a sinister light. A nasty smirk was stretched across his snout. He gave his booted foot one more hard push, then lifted it. The Longtail rolled over, heaving for breath. Gor tossed him a bundle.
“Take that and follow me,” he ordered.
The Longtail hesitated, unsure what the thug was up to. He didn’t think Gor was here to set him free. “Now!” Gor snarled, baring his teeth in annoyance.
The Longtail opened the bundle. It was his satchel, but his journal, the crystal flower and the rest of his equipment were not in it. His cloak was gone too. He got up and Gor gave him an unceremonious shove. “Go where I tell you, slum rat. Don’t run. It would be much easier for you.”
The Longtail stumbled out of the cell, Gor following close behind. The Longtail stole a quick look around, looking for escape. He was in a shaft of half finished tunnels, dark as ink and even more damp than the dank hole he was in. Piles of debris lay scattered in a haphazard fashion everywhere, the torchlight casting eerie shapes from their dim silhouettes. Rough wooden beams dotted the walls like the skeletal remains of a half-rotted animal. This tunnel had been abandoned for a long time.
The Elder’s lackey gave him another hard shove. “Keep walking!” The Longtail moved, dragging his feet, slowing down to buy himself time to observe his surroundings.
Impatient, Gor lashed out with a push kick, sending the Longtail sprawling onto the ground. “Stop dawdling!” he growled, “or I’ll just break your legs and haul you out.”
The Longtail struggled to his feet. He turned around and sized up the thug. Gor was a mass of hard muscle. He wasn’t tall or big, but there wasn’t an ounce of body fat on him. The Longtail would be trounced in a fight, but he was sure he could outrun him even in the state he was in. He edged away, watching for any sudden moves, and ready to bolt at the right moment.
A mocking smile spread across Gor’s rugged features. “The tunnels are a maze, slum rat. You can run, but I’ll find you. Besides,” Gor dropped his voice low, “don’t you want your precious book back?”
Gor dropped the smile from his face. “We haven’t got all day rat, keep walking if you want your book back.” There was a brief struggle in his mind, as the Longtail weighed his freedom against his father’s legacy. In the end, the journal won out. He walked.
The pair was silent as they walked through the tunnels. Only the occasional instruction from Gor pierced the suffocating stillness that lay between them. Under his directions, the Longtail passed through a series of passages, dizzying in the way it cuts through and interlinked with each other. Gor was right, it was a maze. He had not realised that the tunnels under the Temple were this extensive. He tried mapping it in his mind, but soon gave up. There was no way he would get out on his own.
It was hard for the Longtail to judge the passage of time, but the torch was dying when Gor ordered a stop. He tossed the brand to the Longtail, who caught it with an awkward twist of his arm. The spot where they stopped seemed to be no different from any other section of the tunnel, but Gor stepped in front of a boarded wall and pulled it aside, revealing a hidden alcove with slots just big enough for hands and feet chiseled into the stone wall. It led upwards.
Gor took the torch back from the Longtail. “Climb.” He motioned towards the rough hewn ladder. Giving the thug a wary glance, the Longtail reached out and put his hand on the clammy stone work and started pulling himself up. When he reached the top, he pushed aside a thin board and poked his head out of the opening. The Longtail looked around, wary of any more surprises.
“Get out of the way, slum rat,” Gor’s muffled voice came below him. “Nothing’s going to pounce on you.”
Ignoring the thug, the Longtail hauled himself out of the hole with slow, watchful prudence. He found himself in a bare cellar. Carved sandstone shafts served as support, and a stairway led to the exit. The Longtail relaxed a fraction.
Behind him, Gor grunted as he clambered out of the hole, tossing the now useless torch to one side. He dusted himself off and brushed past the Longtail towards the exit. The Longtail followed behind as Gor took out a heavy iron key and opened the cellar door.
They left the cellar and stepped into an old house. It was stripped of furnishing, and was every bit as bare as the cellar was. The windows were boarded up, cloaking the house in perpetual gloom. The floor was stone work and the walls were solid sandstone. The walls were thick enough to drink in any sound the pair made. The house was spotless, kept meticulous and clean. Someone still used the house, it was clear. Just as clear, was that they didn’t want to be seen or heard while in it.
Gor led the way across the hall towards a room with a heavy wooden door. He waited for the Longtail to catch up, then gave a quiet knock. A soft, sultry voice sounded from the other side. “Enter.” Gor opened the door, and pushed the Longtail in.
He stumbled onto a soft carpeted floor. There was a small fireplace, burning precious wooden logs that threw a warm and welcoming glow over a lavish room. Heavy, velvet curtains hung over the windows, stopping the light of the fire from escaping. A glass cabinet displaying an array of porcelain cups stood in one corner of the room and a shelf full of books covered another section of the wall. Tasteful paintings of landscapes hung over the mantle of the fireplace. The scent of fresh herbs and dried flowers drifted through the room.
In the midst of this elegant room, dressed in black supple leathers, Elder Imru was sprawled over a luxuriant leather couch. One leg thrown with casual nonchalance over an armrest while she flipped through a book, taking small sips from a wine glass. His journal. A glowing blue crystal rested on a small table stand beside a decanter of wine. His eyes were transfixed upon the two objects.
Imru wrinkled her snout. “Perhaps we could have given you a proper scrubbing first. Gor, be a dear and throw more of that wood into the fireplace, will you?” A fresh wave of herbal and floral scent filled the room as Gor stepped over to toss a couple of logs resting by the fireplace into the flames.
Imru snapped the journal shut, setting it on her lap. “Scented wood from our friends in the Jungle. It’s the latest craze in the City. I do so love this scent, worth every iron I paid for it.” She raised her head, looking at him through half-lidded eyes. A small teasing smile played across her lips as she studied the Longtail. “Mmm. The boldness of your gaze is making me blush.” She lifted a finger and ran it across the surface of the journal. “Or was there something else you were looking at?”
The Longtail snatched his eyes away from the journal, startled. Blood rushed into his ears, reddening. Imru’s teasing smile curved further, just a little. She raised her arms over her head and stretched, showing off her exquisite form, lounging even further into the couch. The Longtail’s ears reddened even more as he tried not to stare. Gor snorted.
The Elder watched as the Longtail squirmed. After a long moment, she said, “No doubt you have questions.” Her voice was low and husky “Why you are here. And your father. What he is doing.” She paused and now her words were just a whisper. “And why did he do what he did.”
The Longtail said nothing. After so many years of fruitless searching, he wasn’t sure what he thought about his father anymore. He was but a distant and hazy memory. The Longtail didn’t think the Elder would just tell him all that either, and he did not want to be tangled in her schemes. Now that the answers seemed almost within reach however…now that the search seemed almost over...he felt a longing. To know.
Imru gave the Longtail a long sleepy look, then closed her eyes. She lifted the journal towards Gor, who came over to take it. “I have a task for you. Finish it, and you will have your answers. You might even find your father.” Her eyes dropped to the carpet and she sighed. “You have also ruined my favourite carpet. It’s the least you could do in return.”
“Gor will tell you what to do.” She flicked a hand towards the door in a gesture of dismissal. “See to him, dear.”
The Elder’s thug came over and hauled him up, pushing him towards the door. Before they left the Elder’s chambers she spoke again in a distracted manner. As if this was something unimportant that just occurred to her. “I suppose I should tell you. Your father’s name is Varn.”
Stinging sand whipped past the Longtail's face. He pulled his cowl lower and tightened the scarf over his snout. It stopped the sand from getting into his face. Some, anyhow. The Red Desert was throwing a tantrum today. Fierce winds swept across the dunes, raising clouds of blood red sand and sending them roiling through the desert.
Visibility was low and the sandmule he rode slowed its steps. It would not be long before the sandmules stopped altogether and hunker down until the storm passed. They would not make much more progress today. He would have been happier if they had found shelter first though. It was daytime, and although the sandstorm covered them, they were still out in the open; easy prey for creatures that roamed the Red Desert.
The Longtail sighed. This journey had not started out well. Gor had given him a nasty smile after they had left the Elder’s room. The brute clapped him on his back in false camaraderie, way harder than was necessary. “Looks like we’ll be going on a merry trip together slum rat! It’ll be fun, I’m sure!” Putting an iron grip on his arm, Gor had pulled him along and locked him up again, this time in a sparse little room that must have had been a storage closet before. There was not much in the windowless room except a few buckets of water, and rations laid out on a small table alongside a thin creaky bed.
At least there was a bed, and the Longtail spent the next couple of nights sleeping in something like luxury; he could not remember the last time he had slept on something soft, even if it was a little lumpy. He cleaned himself too, washing himself down with one of the water buckets. It was something he had neither time nor safety to do for a while.
On the third day, Gor returned. This time he was dressed for traveling. Light leather armour, well worn and seasoned, was tossed over a padded tunic. A leather skirt was wrapped around his waist over sturdy breeches tucked into stout boots, and a hooded muffler was thrown over his shoulders. What drew the Longtail’s attention however, was the metal-tipped staff-like object, almost as long as Gor was tall, strapped to his back.
A heat spear. A weapon that only Red City’s temple guards and a few of the city militia carried. No one else in the Red Desert had those. A marvel and a great triumph of the Priesthood’s engineering, its making was a close secret the Temple kept to themselves. The Longtail had never seen one up close, although he had seen its use during the purge after the Great Fire. The memories sent chills down his spine.
He almost missed the large sack Gor threw at him. "If you are done gawking, slum rat, get dressed. We're going." Gor snapped.
Still staring at the heat spear, the Longtail opened the sack. In it were his cloak and his equipment. He rummaged through it. Again, there was no journal, and no crystal.
Taking out the cloak, he pulled it over him, feeling the familiar weight and feel of the fabric settling onto his shoulders. He felt lighter, more at ease. The cloak had been with him on so many journeys, seeing him through high roads and low. It gave him comfort. He drew it tight around him.
Watching the Longtail, Gor smirked, “You must really like all the filth on that cloak.”
The Longtail did not react. Elder Imru and Gor had not realised the true nature of his cloak, it seemed. Thanks to all the dirt accumulated on it over the years, it looked quite shabby at first glance. He was in no hurry to correct them.
Gor continued talking while the Longtail got himself ready. “We are heading out into the desert. You will follow my lead. Do not ask questions. If you can.” Gor’s mouth turned up in a slight sneer at the last, mocking the Longtail’s inability to speak. “Your job is to run the Skybridges we find.”
Skybridges. The gears in the Longtail’s mind started turning. More than one? That meant multiple stops. What could they be looking for? His father? That could mean off-world trips. His father had footprints leading everywhere, and his own search had led him across the inner and outer worlds…..
Gor grew impatient. He stepped forward and leaned in, almost touching snout with the Longtail. “If you can’t stop dawdling slum rat,” he growled, baring his fangs, “I’ll lock you up again and throw away the keys. You’ll never find your answers then.” The Longtail looked away.
There wasn’t much talking after that, except for the occasional order from Gor. That seemed like how it was going to be like between them.
They had slipped out of the city at night. Gor led them through a series of back alleys before stealing into the slums outside the city walls. A seedy looking longtail, a footpad, common in the slums, had been waiting near the outskirts and holding the reins of two sandmules. Gor had taken the animals from him, flicking an iron coin over to him before mounting one of them. The knave slunk away into the shadows as soon as he caught the coin, biting on it to make sure it was real. The Longtail mounted the other sandmule and rode out into the open desert with Gor.
South and west they travelled, towards the abandoned water pouch farmlands, dotted with pockets of small desperate communities. Somewhere within this stretch of desolate land, his mother remained, working the dry, lifeless sands on their farm. His grandfather….he wondered if he still lived. The image of his mother toiling on the farm, alone, twisted his guts.
He took in a lungful of the chill night air to clear his thoughts. The Longtail was glad to be away from the stultifying oppression of Red City despite the circumstances. The house they were in sat in a deserted neighbourhood whose owners had fallen on hard times. Rows of houses sat empty and boarded up. It was as close to a ghetto that Red City would allow after it had chased out the city’s undesirables when it rebuilt. Red City had an image of itself that it liked to keep and the poverty of common folks played no part in it.
The Longtail was at home in the freedom of the open desert despite the many dangers, such as the sandstorm they were in now. Which they could have avoided, if they had been more cautious and heeded the desert’s signs. Gor had pushed them hard. Traveling at a rapid, almost reckless pace, they only stopped for a few hours in the afternoon before setting off again each day. The Longtail didn’t know why the thug was in such a rush that he would risk their lives traversing the desert during daylight. It was suicide but Gor had been tightlipped, refusing to answer the Longtail when he protested.
A freak gust of wind whipped sand into his face, blinding him. He coughed out the grit that had gotten into his mouth and spat it out. That sandstorm was getting worse. The sandmules, sensing the increased turbulence, slowed to a stop and sank down on their knees, refusing to move further.
Long solitary rides in his childhood with Angry taught him the wisdom of heeding the sandmule’s instincts. A heavy sandstorm could reduce visibility to nothing, and turn travelers in circles until they died of thirst. It was better to stay put.
The wind whipped around him, rising in tempo and temper. Dismounting, they huddled at the flanks of their sand mules, using their bodies to block the sand from burying them. Closing his eyes, the Longtail settled in to wait out the storm and drifted into a light sleep.
Some instinct woke him. An almost imperceptible sound, just beyond the edge of his hearing. The Longtail sat up, ears stiff, swiveling this way and that as he strained to catch the sound.... There! A soft chattering in the distance, followed by an answering cry. He shivered. He knew what made those sounds. The Longtail got to his feet. Keeping his movements soft, he shuffled over to Gor, who was huddled against his sand mule, and woke him with a rough shake.
Gor sat up in an explosive rage, baring his teeth in savagery. He whipped out his knife and thrust his other hand out to choke out the Longtail, then shoved the knife a hair’s breadth from the Longtail’s throat.
The Longtail grabbed Gor’s knife hand, trying to stop the thug from slicing his throat open. He jabbed an urgent finger to his lips, demanding silence. Then he pointed with equal urgency at his ears, hoping Gor would understand that he had to listen.
It was the grim look on the Longtail’s face that dampened Gor’s instinctive ferocity. Enough that he lifted his ears while still keeping an eye on the Longtail.
Long moments passed. Just when an ugly snarl was beginning to bloom across Gor’s snout, the chattering came again. Soft and distant still, but closer. Much closer. Gor stiffened, and narrowed his eyes. “Blade weevils!” he growled, keeping his voice low. The Longtail gave a tense nod.
Gor shoved the Longtail away. “Get moving!” he snarled. The thug got up and started kicking his sand mule to wake the animal. The sand mule brayed in protest but did not move. Gor took the sand mule’s reins and yanked it, trying to get the sand mule to rise. When it didn’t move, he lashed out with a more vicious kick in the rump.
Alarmed, the Longtail grabbed Gor’s arm and pulled the reins away. Running now was a bad idea. Gor rounded on the Longtail, lifting a fist and throwing it at the Longtail. The Longtail ducked and sidestepped the thug. He pointed at his nose, then back at where the chattering was. The blade weevils had incredible olfactory senses, and can track their prey across vast distances by smell alone. The fierce sandstorm had thrown their scent away for now, and if they moved, the blade weevils will be on their trail. Their best hope was to stay where they are and find a way to hide.
Gor snapped. He didn’t understand the Longtail’s gesturing nor did he care for the slum rat trying to tell him what to do. He flicked out his fist, catching the Longtail by the side of his snout, stunning him. Grabbing the Longtail by his lapels, Gor whipped out his knife and stuck the edge at the Longtail’s throat again.
“I don’t like repeating myself, slum rat!” The thug spat out the words through clenched teeth. “Get. Moving.”
He threw the Longtail back. Unsheathing the heat spear strapped to his saddle bags, Gor slammed the butt into the sandmule. The animal protested. The thug turned the heat spear over and dug the sharp end into the sandmule’s sides, causing it to bray even louder.
The Longtail clenched his fist. The sand blasted thug was going to get them killed! He fought down frustration at his own inability to talk, and Gor’s stone blind recklessness.
Meanwhile, Gor gave the sand mule another vicious jab, digging deep into the animal’s flank. The pain forced the animal onto its feet at last. The ripe scent of the animal’s spoor stung his nostrils and Gor kicked them out of his way with a look of disgust as he swung up the saddle.
Panic struck the Longtail when he saw the spoor flying off. They needed that! He scurried over to pick it up before the sandstorm buried it.
Gor turned the beast around, then watched in revulsion at the slum rat scooping up the sand mule’s spoor. The slum rat took out a piece of cloth and wrapped the spoor in it before dropping it into his satchel. Gor’s lips curled at the repulsive sight and resisted the urge to take the filthy vagrant’s journal out from under his tunic and burn it. Then burn his tunic too for good measure. What else had he put in that satchel of his?!
They had no time for the slum rat’s loathsome fetish. He rode forward and swung his heat spear at the slum rat, who ducked and gave him a baleful glare. The mute ran over to his sandmule, reached under the creature and tickled it. The sandmule’s body stiffened and jerked before springing up on its feet. Then Gor watched as once again the slum rat collected his repellent souvenir. Gor shook his head. Lowlifes, he thought to himself. He dug his heels into the sandmule’s sides and rode off. They can’t sit around and wait, not with a swarm of blade weevils out on the hunt around them.
Gor held up his hand to test the wind. The sand pelting on his palms did not strike as hard as it had. The sand storm had lessened in its severity, but still the sandmule balked at going through the storm. He dug his heels in harder. When the storm passed, the blade weevils will be upon them and he had no desire to face those creatures. He kicked his mount again and the reluctant animal complied at last. Behind him, he could hear the slum rat catching up.
The vagrant was baggage, as far as he was concerned. The only reason he was here was because the Elder wanted to use him to work the Skybridges to find that missing priest. Gor had flipped through the journal, and he had to admit that the mute had mapped out an impressive range of Skybridges. More than the Temple itself had knowledge of, he was sure. That changed nothing. The scrawny lowlife with his disgusting habits were something he could do without. Walking around with his tail free! It was uncouth. He could not understand what Elder Imru thought was so important about the slum rat that they had to go through all that trouble pulling him out of the filth he wallowed in.
Casting the slum rat out of his mind, Gor focused on putting as much distance as he could from the blade weevils. He kicked the sandmule to a trot. The winds lessened as they rode closer to the edge of the storm. That was good. And bad. Once they were out of the sandstorm, they could be on their way again and put some distance between the blade weevils, but the blade weevils could also pick up their trail once the storm no longer gave them cover. Blade weevils were tenacious hunters, but with any luck they could outrun them. He hefted the heat spear in his grip and got ready.
Sure enough, the chattering in the distance changed in tone as Gor and the Longtail rode through and out of the sand storm. A long, ululating whine pierced the air that was picked up by other blade weevils. Gor cursed. This was a large pack they were dealing with.
The sandmules brayed in fear and hastened their steps, running as fast as they could. They no longer needed urging. The chattering grew louder, more urgent. Black streaks burst from the sands on either sides, scuttling across the dunes, nipping at their heels with lighting speed. They had been right next to the pack!
Clamping his legs tight around his mount to secure himself, Gor lifted the heat spear to his shoulders. He turned around, took aim and fired. A heated burst of light blasted from the spear’s muzzle, and hit one of the blade weevils, burning through its oily black carapace. The blade weevil's momentum carried it forward, flipping over before crashing into the ground. The acrid stink of burnt ichor filled the Longtail’s nose and he gagged. Several blade weevils swarmed over the corpse of their fallen brethren, fighting with each other while tearing out chunks from the carcass. The rest continued to give chase.
The sandmules ran as fast as they could, wheezing in exertion. The Longtail watched as Gor took down a couple more blade weevils in quick succession. The thug was a crack shot, no doubt about it. The Longtail wondered if he served in the city guards.
No matter though. The blade weevils were gaining. No amount of sharpshooting will save them from a swarm. The Longtail reached into his satchel and pulled out a heat stone and a wad of sandmule dung he had gathered earlier. He glanced around. The blade weevils are still too far apart. Without special treatment, sandmule dung would not burn well, and the smoke would not spread far.
He had to wait. The blade weevils had to be much closer. Much closer.
Wheezing from the sandmules grew louder. Then hismount stumbled. The Longtail’s heart dropped a beat as his balance fell forward. He threw out a desperate hand, wrapping himself tight around the sand mule’s neck to keep from flying off the saddle.
Sensing blood, the blade weevils gave an ear splitting whine and surged forward.
The sandmule’s eyes bulged in terror. Struggling to its feet, it ran as fast as it could. Fear and desperation drove it forward, and the Longtail could feel its body quivering as the animal neared its limits. His mount could not last. Not like this.
Ahead of him, the Longtail could see Gor galloping ahead. The Longtail turned around. The blade weevils are gaining. The Longtail’s breath tightened.
The sandmule flagged. Adrenaline borne from panic was no longer enough for the animal to push past its burning fatigue. It struggled on, but the swarm closed in.
A black streak flew towards him. He ducked just in time to keep from getting decapitated. He watched as it flew past him into a rock ahead, sinking its mandibles into the rock as if it were soft putty.
A blow from behind knocked his breath out and almost caused him to fall. A blade weevil had struck him on his shoulder, and the cloak was all that kept his arm from being amputated. The blunt force of the blow was immense however, numbing his arm, and the blade weevil clung on with stubborn tenacity trying to saw through the cloak. The Longtail winced at the pressure from the blade weevil’s mandibles.
Now. He had to do it now.
He smashed the heat stone, releasing heat and sparks. He jammed it into the ball of dung. He waited. The fumes came soon, and he choked from the smell, tears springing from the stinging smoke.
The blade weevil’s reaction was even more pronounced. It screeched, and dropped away from him, scurrying into the sand. Heartened, the Longtail turned and threw the burning spoor into the midst of the swarming, surging insects.
The effect was immediate. The acrid plumes rising from the ball of smoking dung seared the blade weevils’ sensitive olfactory nerves, sending them screeching and burrowing back into the sands. The Longtail heaved a sigh of relief, giving silent thanks to his grandfather’s remedies when he wandered the open desert with Angry.
They were not out of danger yet. Another great swarm flanked them on one side. The blade weevils were cunning hunters, and cruel. It was clear that they meant to drive them somewhere. The Longtail took out the last wad of spoor and another heat stone.
Ahead, Gor had dropped his speed to match the Longtail. He had heard and seen the retreat of the blade weevils. “What happened?” He shouted against the wind. Then his eyes dropped to the Longtail’s hands and saw what he held. A light of understanding entered his eyes. He made a chopping motion with his hand, pointing in front of him. “Keep going that way!” He cradled his heat spear and dropped further back behind the Longtail.
The Longtail ignored the thug. He didn’t know what Gor was up to, and he had to focus. The chittering swarm was closing in on them. If he missed this throw, they were finished. Their mounts were close to collapse, and when the sandmules fall, so will they.
He gripped the heat stone tight in his fist, keeping an eye on their encroaching death.
Another blade weevil launched itself at him, this time aiming square at his mount. The Longtail watched in sinking dread at the blade weevil hurtling towards the sandmule, on a path to skewer it. He braced himself for a rough tumble, and a fight to the death on the ground.
A flash of white hot light seared through the blade weevil in midair, leaving a smoking hole in the middle of its body and sending it spinning into the ground. That sickening smell of burnt flesh and ichor stung the Longtail’s nostrils again.
The Longtail whipped his head around and saw Gor hefting the heat spear behind him. The thug had hit the blade weevil clean out while it was in mid-air. It was an incredible feat of marksmanship. The Longtail had no time for admiration though. The swarm was closing in.
More blade weevils launched themselves at him. Flash! Flash! More bursts of light and heat from Gor, scorching a couple of blade weevils about to hit him. The rest sailed pass and missed.
It’s time. The Longtail broke the heat stone and jammed the flaring shards into the ball of dung. He threw it.
The smoldering ball arced through the air, igniting. Plumes of bitter, pungent smoke trailed the projectile as it landed right in the midst of the seething, churning mass bearing down on them.
As one, the blade weevils uttered an ear-splitting screech, discordant and painful. As one, the blade weevils melted away, scuttling and burrowing into the sand.
Wheeling their mounts, the Longtail and Gor forced the tired sandmules into a gallop. Eager to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the blade weevils, the sandmules needed little urging. They squeezed every last bit of strength they had left and ran.
Dim silhouettes of ramshackled buildings sat at the end of the worn dirt track they were on. With each slow, plodding step, the weary travellers could see clearer the eerie shadows casted by the decrepit and crumbling cabins, like eyes of hungry rodents and insects leering from darkness. The low evening sun washed over the settlement with a sick, orange pall, painting a scene of distant, bad memories that came to life.
Their journey had been trying. Despite their near escape from the blade weevils, Gor continued pushing them through the desert by day, driven by some sense of urgency. The Longtail did not like the recklessness with which they gallivanted around the desert. He liked the fact that he could not muster the courage to stop Gor even less.
They had nearly ended their lives in the gullet of a boulder snake because of their headlong rush. Shaky and worn out after escaping from the blade weevil swarm, they found themselves a shelter to rest in. A narrow crevice carved into a rock, it had looked safe, and was hidden from predators. The sandmules were skittish upon entering the crevice, and that should have been their warning sign. Gor had planted himself into a comfortable position straight away however, pulling out his heat spear and cleaning it, ignoring the jittery animals. The Longtail tried to calm them down, but something was making them nervous.
The sandmules would not be mollified. They reared and stamped their feet. Their eyes were wide with fright. The Longtail tried to sooth the mounts nevertheless. He looked around, searching for what spooked the sandmules.
At first, the Longtail thought he was hallucinating. The thin beams of light streaming in through the mouth of the crevice rippled, catching his attention. He took a closer look. Nothing. Then the upper edge of the crevice's entrance shifted, ever so slight. He caught it out of the corner of his eye, and it stopped. The Longtail froze, keeping as still as he could, pinning his gaze at the entrance.
Long moments passed, tight with tension, and there it was again, a slight shift. Bits of loose rock fell. Icy fear gripped the Longtail's heart. They have wandered into some creature's nest, and it was big, from the looks of it. He looked at Gor, then back at the entrance, unsure what to do. A ball of anxiety started forming in the pit of his stomach. How could he even attempt to sound out what was going on?
The creature out there shifted again. The Longtail bit his lips. Maybe the best way was the most direct way. He heaved himself onto his sandmule. Gor looked up, his eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth to speak. The Longtail held up his hand and pointed at the mouth of the crevice.
The air rippled again, and a monstrous eye appeared, peering into the crevice. Ringed by a rough, rocky ridge, the eye was larger than the Longtail, even on his mount. The Longtail could see every complex pattern on the eye, made mesmerising by the iridescent specks that danced around the alien, slitted iris. The iris narrowed, and Gor rushed towards his mount.
The creature reacted with dizzying swiftness. It drew back and lashed out with a long, prehensile tongue. Forked and glistening with a sticky fluid, the tongue flicked into the crevice with lightning speed. The Longtail jerked on the reins of his sandmule and hauled it to the side, missing it by a hair’s breadth as it snaked its way through. The tongue snapped a second time, this time almost catching Gor.
They had to get out of here. The Longtail kicked the sides of his sandmule. Hard. The animal, already freaked out, charged forward. Gor scrambled onto his mount and was not far behind.
The sandmules burst forth from the crevice, then froze. The Longtail gaped. Hanging over them, casting an enormous shadow, was a terrifying visage. It was massive. The size of a house. Craggy ridges ran along its brows and the crown of its head, while a rocky hide, indistinguishable from the terrain around it, covered a long sinuous body that was wrapped over the rock face where they sought shelter. The same strange ripples ran across a body that was muscular enough to have crushed the rock it was coiled over.
It regarded them with dead, black eyes, swaying with a slow weave of its head. The Longtail could feel the sandmule trembling under him, and his own mouth was dry with fear.
The boulder snake bared its fangs and hissed.
The sandmules shrieked, broken out of their trance. They bolted, not heeding where they were going. The boulder snake narrowed its eyes, then lunged towards the Longtail.
The Longtail kicked his sandmule. The animal needed no encouragement. It gave another shriek and ran faster. The boulder snake snapped forward, maw open and bearing down on them like an avalanche. The Longtail pulled at the reins as hard as he could and wheeled the sandmule to the side. The sandmule whined in protest, but turned to the side and leapt.
The boulder snake’s head swept past, throwing up sand and gravel with the force of its momentum. The Longtail threw up his cloak to block the flying debris. Heart in mouth, he kicked the sandmule again, desperate to be away before the boulder snake came back at them. The sandmule ran for dear life.
The boulder snake regarded the two fleeing dots. Deciding that they were too small and not worth the effort of chasing down, it coiled back onto the rock face. Giving the riders one more look, it closed its eyes. Light seemed to dance and bend around it, and it became part of the landscape once more.
They learnt to give the land a great deal more respect after that, wary and vigilant as they stumbled through the desert. Gor would heed the Longtail, at least when the Longtail was uneasy about something. It didn’t make their travels together easier by any means, but it became a little more tolerable.
Gor had remained tightlipped about where they were going, but decided to stop at the derelict village they had stumbled across. “Going to stop up ahead. Get water. Maybe shelter, maybe not. Watch yourself. Rats up ahead are vile.”
The clipped sentences were harsh with thirst; they had been without water for some time now, and had relied on the sandmules to find whatever water they could. Water would help, but the Longtail could not understand the cryptic warning.
Gor saw his look. “You’ll see,” he said, and stopped talking. His throat was parched and he didn’t want to waste any more words than necessary.
The first thing the Longtail noticed as they neared was the stench. A sour smell hung over the village, reaching him long before they rode close. His ears stiffened at the reek. The stink was unmistakable. Datang. The flowers when ground into a paste and smoked through pipes produced a that miasma seeped into everything. It got stronger the closer they got to the hamlet.
The second thing the Longtail noticed were the villagers. The handful that he saw were walking corpses, as decayed in spirit as in their bodies. Rack thin, they shambled without aim or sat around looking into the distance, smothered by datang fever. They were listless, dispirited and slack-jawed with dull confusion, their minds burned away by datang. A town at the end of hopes and dreams.
There were countless places like this in the south western stretch of Red City. Entire communities were devastated after the waterpouch farms had dried up. Trade plummeted, and desperation had driven scores into Red City in search of survival. They fared little better, under the iron rule of the Temple.
Far from welcoming them, Red City did not want anything to do with the refugees. They were nameless, and the City regarded them as lesser creatures. Most could not find meaningful work; what there were, were of the meanest sort. It did not take long before the refugees were forced into the slums to live as beggars and petty criminals.
Then the Great Fire swept through Red City. The nameless that didn’t die in the blaze were thrown out of the city by Red City officials, where they hoped that the desert would finish the job.
This decrepit town was like so many of those other dead and dying towns. The ones who stayed had nothing to live for, and watched as their lives crumbled. Thus it was that they made a pact with the devil.
Datang was a hardy plant, and could grow anywhere. There was great demand for it from shady quarters. In desperation, towns that were on the edge of dissolution decided to meet that demand. Some villages grew them in patches, others harvested from wild fields. No matter which way they chose to gather the plants, they always ended at the same place; the end of everything.
The coins were good at first. The illicit trade from the city brought enough wealth to shore up their dying communities. Then one of them would get addicted, whether by accidental exposure or a willful act, and the spiral downwards would begin. In time, all of the town would become captured by the false hopes found in the fever dreams, and they would be trapped, becoming emaciated shadows of their former selves.
That did not mean that those villages became harmless however. On the contrary datang made one unpredictable, desperate, and dangerous. The Longtail kept a careful eye on the locals as they rode past the crumbling mud huts. Most paid no heed to the two travellers, content to loiter about, caught in visions only they could see. Most. Hidden amongst the sea of thousand yard stares, were a few sober ones, staring at them with vulture-like hunger.
The dirt track that served as a road led them through a section of the hamlet dotted by a few smaller huts, before opening up to what passed as the village square. A large, two storied house, made of discolored mud and sandstone, caught his eye. It had the flat roofs common to the open desert, to catch what moisture and rain it could. Rotted and frayed remnants of the curtains that used to cover the door and windows still clung across the openings. Gaping holes where parts of the walls had fallen in gave the building a look of a demented wretch. The smell of urine and feces announced their presence long before he saw the stains on the walls and the piles scattered about. An open pen, which perhaps used to hold animals during better days, stood beside the building.
It was not much more comfortable a place to stay in than the dilapidated huts that surrounded it. Still, anyone that fancied themselves important in this dead town would call that building home, the Longtail supposed. There was grandeur in size for a house, even when it was falling in on itself.
He could feel the intensity of the gazes from the shadowed recess inside the structure. He noticed that Gor had tied a stout piece of cord between his hand and his heat spear, holding it in a relaxed grip and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. His eyes darted around, keeping a sharp watch on the locals. Apprehension started building in the Longtail.
A shabby villager, fur hanging in patches and dressed in threadbare tunic and pants, stepped out from beneath the doorway of the building. He was hunched over, and walked with the gait of someone who had submission beaten into him. Open sores wept pus along his scrawny arms and legs where his fur had fallen out, and his tail dragged the floor behind him. With sullen, downcast eyes, he resembled nothing more than an unhealthy rat emerging from a sewer.
"Wha d'ya wan'?" The male slurred in a churlish mutter, the words coming out raw and liquid from too much smoking as he shuffled up to the two travellers. He was skittish and nervous, throwing constant looks back towards the house.
Ignoring the miserable creature in front of him, Gor raised his voice and shouted at the house, “We're passing through. Be out of your hair soon as we get some water.” The villager looked up at both of them, full of unease. He wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation and gave another frightened look back towards the shadows in the building.
“Wai'tere,” he mumbled, and scurried back into the building.
A group of half-starved villagers gathered in the silence that followed Gor's words, staring at them with uncomfortable intensity. They were dressed in rags and filth, and their fevered, bloodshot eyes were bright with malice. The Longtail counted at least a dozen. Whatever else the datang had robbed them of, they still had sense enough to recognise prey when they see it.
The Longtail tensed. This could get ugly.
The wretch stepped out of the building once more after a long moment. He said in the same churlish tone, “30 i'ons. No dealin'. Give or we’s takin’ it.” the Longtail’s eyes widened in alarm. The villager had just announced that they would rob them. And 30 irons?! He could live like a king for weeks on that!
"30 irons? Have your brains rotted from all that datang? 7. All we've got." Gor's words were laced with contempt. The Longtail closed his eyes and groaned in his mind. He coiled, hunching over his mount and getting ready for flight.
The mangy villager was flummoxed. He wasn't expecting Gor's defiance. He shot apprehensive glances back into the house, then held out his hand. "30 i'ons." The words came out a strained whine, pleading and shaking with anxiety.
"7." Gor repeated. He was as immovable as a rock cliff.
The wretch looked on the verge of panic. He gaped, mouth opening and closing as he searched for words to a retort. A loud thumping came from inside the house. The villager jumped. He gave Gor and the Longtail a frightened, accusatory look as he slunk back into the house a second time.
Meanwhile, feeling the tension, the villagers closed in. The Longtail tried to roll his eyes at Gor, who ignored him. The Old Ones take him, but this muscle-brained rat will get them killed. He balled his hands, gripping tight enough for the reins to cut into his palms. Oh, to be able to make a sound. Any sound!! Frustration welled up. Thick, pungent, and burning like pitch in his stomach.
He forced himself to relax his grip. This was a bad time to lose control. He crushed the reins in his hands again. A bad time to lose control.
A loud crack sounded from the house. The mangy villager stumbled out of the doorway, blood flowing down a torn scalp. Sobbing in piteous gasps, he scrambled away in abject terror. A chunk of clay brick sailed out of the doorway, clipping the male in the head. He crumpled to the ground.
From the shadowed entrance of the house, a towering scarecrow covered in white fur and dressed in rags, stepped out. He had sunken, hollowed out cheeks, like the rest of the starving villains in this datang infested hole. Blood red eyes bright with a piercing malice shone in gaunt sockets with a disturbing fervor. The male did not venture far into the sunlight, blinking as he studied Gor and the Longtail. He stared at the heat spear for a long time.
The shadows lengthened as the sun gave way to dusk. The figure in the doorway spoke. His voice was high pitched, with a hideous wheezing and a breath away from a coughing fit. "11 irons it be. Best we ca do, we’s poor, as you see. 'ive us yer skins and we be fillin' it for ye."
Gor lifted the side of his lips in contempt. "No. We'll fill it. Ourselves. From your well. Who knows what you are going to put in it. And 7 irons. Not a rust speck more."
Blood Red Eyes was silent as he locked gazes with Gor. "I wan’ tha." He lifted a finger at the heat spear resting in Gor's hands. " ’ive tha’ta me."
Gor sneered. "You'll be dead first."
The two males glared at each other in a silent contest of wills. All held their breath, their attention riveted upon the two. A single cough could have set off an explosion from the hostility between the two. The sun dipped lower, and the shadows lengthened further, pooling around Gor and Blood Red Eyes. It was as if the shadows themselves could sense the malevolence, and was drawn to it.
Then, in that moment of twilight where the fingers of light clasped and held the hands of night, and let go, Blood Red Eyes stepped back into the darkness of the ruined house. He lifted a hand and threw a chop at the pair of travellers as he did so.
Pandemonium broke out. As one, the villagers surged forward, sunken eyes bright with frenzy. With their clawing, outstretched hands and gaunt bodies, the villagers were as rabid walking cadavers. The utter silence in which they advanced raised the fur on the Longtail’s back.
Scores more bodies spilled forth from the main building. These carried weapons; short flint spears and and hardened mud clubs studded with teeth and claws. They lunged.
Unfazed, Gor took action. He found a spot where the advancing line was thin. Hoisting the heat spear up with an ease born of practice, he squeezed off a shot. The heat spear flared, burning a hole through the forehead of Gor’s mark. The villager slumped into the ground without a word.
The maddened locals took no notice. Gor fired once more. Another villager fell, a smoking crater where his right eye was. The villagers did not slow their advance. Changing his tactics, Gor urged his mount forward and charged through the line. The sandmule shot forward, thundering past the villagers and sending them flying. One tenacious villager hooked his hand onto Gor’s reins, threatening to pull him off. Without missing a beat, Gor raised his heat spear and smashed the butt into the villager’s face. The villager’s hand slackened and Gor kicked him away without a backward glance.
The Longtail urged his mount forward too. He was shocked by the swiftness and brutality of Gor’s actions, but the villagers were closing in on him and he had to move. He kicked his mount hard, and the sandmule galloped after Gor.
The villagers scattered, scrambling out of his way. All but one. Their eyes locked. She was thin and filthy, with a dull look, her mind scrubbed away by datang a long time ago. A dim spark of understanding shone in her eyes, as her predicament became clear to her. It was too late to swerve however. The sandmule knocked her over, and its hind hooves came down on her prone legs with a sickening crunch. The sound cut deep into the Longtail and his gorge rose. The sandmule ran past.
An ear splitting shriek sliced through the air as the female clutched at her crushed leg. The Longtail cringed and tried to block it out. His legs went numb and trembled as if his own legs were crushed. He turned his head back for a look, trying to catch a glimpse of what happened to the female.
Instead, he saw the villagers running after them. They weren’t giving up. Not even after the losses and injuries they took. How strong their fear of Blood Red Eyes must be, even addled by datang as these poor souls were!
Ahead, Gor was fast becoming a distant speck. For a brief moment, the Longtail thought of turning his sandmule in another direction and leaving. The casual cruelty and lack of hesitation Gor displayed in killing the half-starved wretches disturbed him. They wouldn't even have found themselves in that situation if the thug had stopped to think. The Longtail had no stomach for violence, nor did he want to be led by someone unfamiliar with the desert to his death!
The cracking sound of crunched bones echoed in his ears. A shiver went down the Longtail's spine as his gorge rose again. He gripped tight the reins of his sandmule. He wanted to turn away. To ride off. In the end, he forced down the bile scalding the back of his throat, and rode after Gor.
He will find his father. He needed to.
The Longtail trudged through the desert with weary steps. It was deep into the night and the desert slumbered. He was grateful for that, because they were now on foot, trekking through a rocky incline. They had lost Gor’s mount hours ago. Sandmules were hardy creatures and can survive in the desert with little forage for many days. Between the blade weevils, the boulder snake, and the village full of crazed addicts however, even the stout creatures had been pushed past their limits. After escaping the village, Gor’s mount had sat down, refusing to walk further no matter how Gor cursed and kicked. It closed its eyes, laid its head to rest and within moments, stopped breathing.
They had loaded their belongings onto the remaining sandmule, and walked. They could ill afford to have their last mount die on them. Nor did the idea of riding with Gor on the same mount seem appealing. The Longtail was sure Gor felt the same.
The Longtail was beginning to doubt his decision to stay. The ruffian had remained reticent about their destination all this time. The thug displayed impressive martial skills, but was a complete novice when it came to the desert. For all the Longtail could see, they were wandering without aim.
Fingering the scar on his throat, he tried to remember what it was like to talk. It was a long time ago, before the Great Fire when he was just a pup. When he left his grandfather’s waterpouch farm, he welcomed the solitude. Embraced it. There was no one he had to talk to, no awkward silences and no shame. It was just him and his thoughts. Now he was forced to travel with Gor and it riled and frustrated him.
"Slum rat," Gor's heat spear dug into his ribs, snapping him back into the present. The Longtail glared at Gor, who ignored him. Instead, he gestured towards a recess formed by a stack of boulders that gave some concealment. "Quick stop here," he said in a hoarse voice. Gor didn’t wait for the Longtail, and marched over. Finding a comfortable spot, he sat, leaning onto his heat spear.
The Longtail led the sandmule over, and made it sit. The creature sank into the sand without protest, glad for a chance to rest. The Longtail sat down beside the sandmule, stretching his legs. His travelling companion looked tired and more doubts clouded his mind.
“What are you looking at, slum rat?” Gor gave the Longtail a baleful stare, brows furrowing and teeth bared in a snarl. The Longtail dropped his gaze.
“Sleep now, slum rat, but keep your ears stiff. We move in a few hours. It’s just past the incline.” Gor didn’t bother to elaborate what “it” was, and closed his eyes. He fell into a light sleep in seconds.
The Longtail tightened his jaws. The ruffian’s attitude galled him. Running through the desert without aim, and the reckless disregard for danger. None of it made sense to him and the Longtail did not want to die because of some stuck up ignorance the Elder’s thug had. He stalked over to where Gor was sleeping, fuming.
Gor felt his presence, and cracked open an eye. He glowered at the Longtail, his hand on his heat spear. The Longtail stared back. Something in the way the Longtail held himself, and the intensity of his gaze broke through Gor’s usual contempt for the disheveled vagrant. He set the heat spear aside.
“Your father walked through these parts, vagrant. The Elder was very thorough in her investigations. My hunting ground is the city, and I am no path finder, but we are not without purpose here,” he said at last. The Longtail did not budge, and continued staring at Gor.
Gor’s eyes narrowed. “Sit back down, slum rat. That’s as much as I’m going to give you,” he snarled.
The Longtail held his ground a moment longer, then retreated back towards the sandmule’s side, wrapping his cloak around him as he settled in for a few hours.
A faint stench drifted across the slight air currents weaving through the night, tickling his nostrils. The Longtail sat up. He had been unable to sleep, his thoughts roiling like storm clouds. He lifted his snout and sniffed the air. The scent was sour and cloying. Sour, like smoked datang. His heart started hammering in its cage. The villagers couldn’t have tracked them all the way here, could they? He took a moment to make sure no one was around hiding in the dark waiting to ambush them. Keeping his movements slow so as not to startle the sandmule, he snuck over to Gor and gave him a gentle shake on the shoulders.
Gor’s eyes snapped open, bright with the feral light of a fierce animal. The Longtail held a finger to his lips, then made a motion towards where the smell was coming from. He pointed back at his nose. Gor sat up and took a sniff, but smelled nothing. He looked back at the Longtail with narrowed eyes. Deciding to trust the Longtail’s instincts this time, he nodded and gestured towards the sandmule. The Longtail hurried back.
Getting the sandmule up without making a sound would be tricky. Sandmules get cranky when woken. He clamped one hand over the beast's snout, then reached down to tickle its belly. Its eyes flicked open. Quick as a flash, the Longtail put his hand behind its ears and started stroking it.
Mollified, the sandmule got to its feet with only a slight huffing. It shook its head, clearing the sleep from its eyes. Up ahead, Gor was already moving up the slope, his footsteps swift and silent. The Longtail urged the sandmule along and they set off.
The travellers did not get far. Someone shouted. It was their pursuers from the village they fled and they had been spotted. "Run!" Gor’s words were muffled by the distance between them. The two broke into a sprint, scrambling as fast they could up the slope.
Behind them came more yelling. The villagers hastened their steps as well, and the Longtail could see them carrying their crude weapons. Looming over them was Blood Red Eyes, snarling as his long, gangly arms swung a large stone club about, harassing and driving his followers. His hate-filled visage fixed upon the Longtail and Gor, and he loosed a guttural roar of rage. The villagers rushed forward, fear driving them.
The sandmule, spooked by the roar, gave a frightened cry of its own and leapt forward. Taken by surprise, the Longtail near lost his grip on the reins. The sandmule dragged him off his feet, and he stumbled for several steps before catching his balance, running alongside the sandmule. He made a panicked jump and managed to haul himself up onto the saddle.
The sandmule galloped up the slope, closing the distance from Gor. Bracing himself, the Longtail held out his arm. As the sandmule ran past the thug, Gor reached out and grabbed the Longtail's outstretched hand.
The Longtail hauled Gor up the saddle, grunting with the effort. Gor swung onto the sandmule, clasping his arms around the Longtail.
"Phaugh! You stink!" The Longtail ignored the thug. He could feel Gor shifting around behind him, putting the sandmule off balance. The Longtail turned around, annoyed, and saw him rummaging through the saddlebags.
From the saddlebags, Gor drew out two muzzle masks. They were sturdy, made of tough leather that wrapped around the snout and the head with a heavy filter for breathing. Two flaps at the back made a double seal, making it waterproof.
Gor pushed one of the masks into the Longtail's hands. Slinging the heat spear over his back, he started to put the mask on. The Longtail stared at the mask, turning it over in his hand. This was made by a craftsman, a good one. It was not something one could find on a rest day market sale. He wondered how Gor came by two of these. It did not bode well for what laid ahead.
His intuition was soon answered. The sandmule, struggling under the weight of two riders, crested the slope at last. As the sandmule stood on trembling legs collecting its breath, the Longtail beheld a crater. At the bottom of the crater was a valley of flowers.
Red flowers. Datang. An incredible profusion of it. The entire floor of the crater was carpeted by its blood red blossoms.
Few sights were more beautiful than a field of datang in the Red Desert. On a night like this, with the skies above open and clear, starlight from distant constellations poured down to flirt amongst the crimson velvet petals of datang blossoms. It was like a scene came to life from a master painter. It was glorious. It was also one of the most dangerous sights in the desert.
Gor pointed towards a mound in the middle. “There.” The Longtail swung around, looking at Gor in alarm. It was madness to ride through such a thick field of datang! Not even with a crafted mask as fine as the ones they had!
“Below ground. Skybridge.” Gor’s tense answer was muffled. Behind them, the yells from their pursuers grew louder. “Quickly! Not much time left!”
This was what they were looking for. A Skybridge. Here. The Longtail pulled on the mask and secured it. There was no other way but forward. They will lose the sandmule. No creature could pass through such a large field and emerge unscathed. The Longtail was loathe to sacrifice the animal but they could not hope to hold off the crazed villagers, not trapped by the datang field in front of them with nowhere to run. He kicked the sandmule hard, and they charged into the crater, towards the valley of dreaming death.
A rage-filled scream split the night as Blood Red Eyes reached the top of the slope. He had seen where the two travellers were headed. Sensing his quarry slipping from his grasp, he screeched at his followers, forcing them to pursue. The villagers hesitated, then tied strips of cloth around their snouts and rushed down the slope.
The sandmule reached the base of the crater, its momentum propelling it into a long leap towards the datang field. Its hooves struck the ground and it tore through the field, throwing up scarlet petals winking in the starlight as they swirled in the wake of the sandmule’s passing. For a moment, it seemed hopeful. The speed of the sandmule might carry them through. The sandmule ran, eating distance as it did.
Then, the animal's legs buckled. It was slight, but the Longtail felt it. Gor felt it too.
“‘Ware the…!” Gor’s warning was cut off as the sandmule tottered off course. It spun, and ran a few more steps. The animal raised a forlorn cry, then pitched forward, crashing into the ground as the pollen took hold of the sandmule in its potent grasp.
The two travellers were thrown into the air. With no time to think, the Longtail’s instincts took over. Tucking into a ball and covering the back of his head with his hands, he managed to land on his shoulders. The force of his landing tore his breath away. It took a precious moment for him to get his wind back. Forcing himself to stand, he looked to see where Gor had fallen.
Gor staggered up. His mask was askew! He reached up with trembling hands and readjusted the mask, tightening it. He took a few steps, then collapsed as he too succumbed to the datang’s pollen.
Whooping cries filled the air. Their pursuers had seen them fall, and smelled blood. The Longtail ran towards Gor and heaved the thug onto his shoulders. He buckled under the thug’s solid weight.
Through sheer effort of will, Gor fought through the fever dreams and pointed at the fallen sandmule. “B..ook....” The saddlebags. His father’s journal was in the saddlebags! He ran back towards the dying creature and loosened the saddlebags with trembling fingers. The Longtail could see the villagers running through the field, hacking away at the plants with their stone axes to clear the way. He was astounded that the villagers could move through the field without falling over from the pollen. All those years of smoking must have granted them some resistance. The Longtail snatched the saddlebags up, turned around and ran as hard as he could while carrying Gor.
He staggered under Gor's weight. The thug was heavy and it was hard to breathe through the mask. It was hard picking his way through the field too; the datang roots threatened to trip him at every opportunity and the mound looked so far away.
The Longtail gritted his teeth. He forced himself to sprint, ignoring the burning in his chest, his legs weaving and jumping over the roots. He drew huge breaths, fighting through the mask's heavy filters.
He ran. He ran and ran. Was the mound any closer? He didn't know. His feet went numb, and he could no longer feel one of his arms. The screaming and yelling from the villages faded from his attention. He could no longer spare any thoughts for them.
Searing pain began crawling up his sides. Gor was getting heavier with every step. The swinging saddlebags he carried disturbed his balance and he struggled to keep from collapsing. He clenched his teeth, hard, and forced his chest to keep pulling in breaths. His vision watered and blurred.
The Longtail pushed his leg forward. There was a loose rock. He stepped on it, too hard, and his leg went wide. A breathless moment caught him as his heart leapt into his throat, then he fell, face first, into the ground. Pitching forward with the force of all the weight he carried, he hit the ground hard.
Forcing his eyes open through the pain, he looked up at an earthen wall with faded carvings. It was the mound! He could see a darkened stairway leading down. They were almost there.
The Longtail looked back. The villagers were closer now. Much closer. Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself up and hauled the unconscious Gor onto his shoulders. Grunting with the effort, he hobbled down the stairway with Gor slung over his back.
Pitch black darkness greeted him. He put a hand out to the sand beaten walls to steady himself as he felt his way down, taking care not to miss a step and tumble into the yawning abyss. In other times, he would have examined the walls and structure with greater care, wondering who could have built this place. Not now.
The stairs went on forever. How long had he been going down? It was hard to tell. Bickering voices echoed down the stairway. It sounded like the villagers were reluctant to descend the ominous stairway. He hoped they would stay up there. That would buy them time to get to the Skybridge. The Longtail hastened his steps, as much as he could.
Blood pounded in his head and his ragged breathing echoed through the stairway with each painful step. When were the blasted stairs going to end? He wanted to tear the muzzle mask off. It was so hard to breathe through it.
He dared not. The datang would get him.
One step ahead of the other. One step ahead of the other. One….
The Longtail fell to the ground, cracking his knee against the hard stone floor. He had stepped forward expecting another step, but hit level ground instead and so lost his balance. He lay stunned for a moment, then shoved Gor's dead weight off him.
Grimacing against the pain in his knee, he clambered to his feet and looked around. They were in a rough hewn chamber, wide but with a low ceiling. Some hands, longtails from long ago perhaps, had carved this out from a natural cavern. The Skybridge sat at the other end of the chamber. He heaved a sigh of relief; they were here.
Faint echoes of their pursuers still drifted down from the staircase, reminding him that they don’t have much time. He bent down and scooped his hands under Gor's shoulders and started dragging him.
The thug stirred, muttering something incoherent. A roar ripped from his chest. “NO! You will not!” He swung his fists about, catching the Longtail in the jaw. The Longtail staggered back, dazed. Gor flailed his arms, lashing out at enemies only he could see. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he fell into a stupor again.
The Longtail rubbed his jaw. If his voice still worked, he would have cursed long and loud. He stumbled back to the unconscious male. Grasping him by his collar, the Longtail resumed dragging him towards the Skybridge.
The Longtail’s arms were shaky by the time they reached the Skybridge. Exhausted, he knelt in front of the controls, studying it. He frowned. The Skybridge was locked. That meant it could only travel to the location it was pointed to.
Locking the Skybridge took skill. His father...Varn must have done it. Why…? He also recognised the place it was set to. It was a place even his father had expressed doubt in traveling to, in his journal.
Just then a shout came from the hall's entrance. Their pursuers have reached them at last. No time to fiddle around. They had to go. The Longtail hit the sequence to summon the Skybridge. Humming filled the room as the Skybridge awoke and rose into view. Pounding feet echoed through the hall as the villagers sensed the pair’s escape once more.
The Longtail tossed their equipment into the chamber. He grabbed Gor without ceremony and heaved him inside, clenching his teeth with the effort. The Longtail leapt in after, hitting the door panel. The Skybridge chamber started closing.
The Longtail watched their pursuers close in. One villager peeled away from the rest, some inner demon lending him speed as he dashed towards them.
The male threw himself in just as the door closed around his waist. The Longtail watched in horror as the Aetheric Thether enveloped the squirming villager. His eyes widened in panic as he felt the door crushing him.
The Longtail jumped forward to pull the villager in. He would die a horrific death if the Skybridge activated now.
The humming reached a crescendo. The Longtail pulled with all his might. The villager, sensing his own impending demise, wriggled as hard as he could, whimpering in terror.
He inched in. Waist clear. Knees. Now just a foot.
The Skybridge shot through the ceiling. The blood-curdling cry of the poor devil filled the Skybridge chamber. Blood gushed out of his severed ankle, washing the chamber red as they hurtled towards what was once known as Earth.