The Gur al Krin desert was quiet. No wind stirred the massive orange and red sand dunes. The night was clear. A sliver of moon hung in the eastern sky.
In a flattened area a scattered handful of huge, black stones, their angles too regular to be natural, lay scattered about the edges of a small crater, as if tossed there by an explosion from below. At the bottom of the crater the entrance to a tunnel was just visible, choked with sand and rock.
From the tunnel came a scraping sound. Stones were shifted; sand poured down. The tunnel grew wider. A hand – too large to belong to a human and the color of dark copper – emerged from the darkness and gripped the edge. Another hand appeared, and then Shorn pulled himself from the crater, Netra draped over his shoulder.
He laid her gently on the sand, then knelt beside the tunnel for a moment, listening. No sounds came from below. Nor had he heard any sounds of pursuit since fleeing the cavern with Netra.
What happened down there? He was not entirely sure. All he knew for sure was that he’d caught up to her too late to save her from it.
To save her from herself.
He’d heard the explosion and when he entered the cavern she was lying unconscious on the ground. On one side of the cavern was a huge stone wall the color of rotted ice, a gaping hole ripped in the center of it. In the shadows of the hole he’d glimpsed movement and felt the presence of something ancient and powerful. He hadn’t waited to learn more, snatching her up and running.
One thing he did know: Melekath was free. His gut told him Netra was the reason. She’d been used, tricked. He’d failed her. He’d promised himself that he’d protect her. He should have found a way to stop her, but instead he’d stood aside – even though he could see what was happening to her – and said nothing until it was too late.
When he first made his vow to Netra he did so purely out of a sense of duty. But over the next few weeks as he traveled with her that vow changed, deepened. She showed him that there was still something worth living for, that maybe there was still a chance to redeem himself. Her cause had become his. But it was more than that. From her he began to glimpse the true value of life, to see that there was more to the world than fighting.
Then, seeing her head down the dead-end path that he’d spent so much of his life on, hating, killing… He knew where that path led but he didn’t know how to divert her from it.
So he did nothing and this was what it led to.
He knelt beside her. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. He felt for her pulse. It was thin and faint, but it was there. She had not moved since he’d picked her up. She wasn’t bleeding. He ran his fingers across the contours of her skull but found no lumps. Whatever injuries she had, they were internal, which worried him. He was no healer, but he was a warrior and he had seen a great deal of injury and death, enough to know that internal injuries could be the deadliest. If she was injured inside, there was nothing he could do for her.
He sat back on his heels and took a drink from his water skin, noticing how low it was. Water would soon be a problem. With daylight would come the brutal heat. Injuries wouldn’t matter if they both died of thirst. They needed to get out of this desert as soon as possible.
He scanned the horizon, wondering which way to go. Towering sand dunes surrounded them on all sides. There was nothing else to see. There were no mountains or other landmarks for him to fix on. Any tracks he had left had been wiped away by the wind. None of the sand dunes looked familiar. On the way in he had been focused only on following Netra. He had not considered what might come after. He frowned. He had no idea how big this desert was. Choosing the wrong direction would leave them at the mercy of the sun and the heat. They would not need Melekath to kill them then.
After a time, he noticed a slowly spreading glow in the sky, which told him where east was. Now he had something to go on. As best he could remember, he had traveled roughly south through the desert. Which meant that they needed to go north. He picked Netra up, cradling her in his arms instead of over his shoulder, now that he did not have to worry about striking her head on the sides of the tunnel. Choosing a gap between two of the dunes that seemed to lead north, he set off.
He had not walked for very long when there was a fork in the path between the dunes. Neither went directly north so after a minute of pondering he chose the left one and continued on. The dunes did not run straight, but twisted side to side and a few minutes later he realized that he was walking more west than north. He cursed under his breath, but continued on. A short while later he realized he was now walking almost due south.
Cursing under his breath, he backtracked and took the right fork. This one meandered left, then right, and forked several more times, but he seemed to be proceeding more or less north, though it was hard to tell for sure. Eventually the sun rose, but it was on his left instead of his right, which meant that he was actually walking south.
He stopped and laid Netra on the sand. She was still motionless. He held the water skin to her mouth and managed to get a small amount down her throat. He looked up at the dunes that towered on all sides. He needed to get his bearings.
Leaving Netra where she was, he climbed the dune. It wasn’t easy. The sand was like powder and he sank in almost to his knees with each step. He slid backwards one step for every two that he took forwards. And it was starting to get hot. It took longer than he’d thought, but finally he reached the top of the dune.
There was nothing but sand dunes in every direction as far as he could see. No sign of a way out. No sign of where he had come from. The sun was climbing and the heat was rising steadily. Frustrated, Shorn slid back down the dune to where Netra lay.
If only she would wake up. She’d know which way to go to get out of here. But she showed no signs of stirring.
He looked back the way he’d come, considering backtracking, then discarded the idea. The way the dunes twisted around, he was likely to be walking north again soon enough. If he started doubting himself and turning back, he’d never get them out of here. Best to just keep moving forward. Picking Netra up once again, he continued on.
In time the sun rose over the dunes and the last of the shade disappeared. The heat quickly became murderous, seeming to beat on him from all sides. Heat waves made everything wavery and uncertain, as if seen from underwater. The sun was so bright it hurt to look at the sand and Shorn had to squint to keep from being blinded. The air grew so hot that it burned in his chest, each breath like a searing flame. He tried to protect Netra as much as he could, pulling the hood of her cloak up to cover her face. She seemed very pale and her breathing was shallow.
He gave up trying to guess which direction would free them from this hell and concentrated on simply moving. The dunes branched over and over in a never-ending maze. It was crazy. This place didn’t make any sense. On the way in it had seemed so easy. He’d known which way to go and he’d gone that way. It was as simple as that. Thinking back, he realized that it had seemed simple because he was following Netra. Now he no longer had that beacon and he was completely lost. For the first time he had to consider the very real possibility that he would fail at this, that he and Netra would simply die out here in this maddening desert.
No. Failure was not an option. He had failed Netra once already. He should have stopped her before she broke the prison. He had seen what was happening to her, as the madness for Song slowly took her over. He did not really understand what Song was, though Netra had tried a number of times to explain it to him, but he knew what happened to warriors who became addicted to fenis back on Themor, and he thought that something similar had happened to Netra. Warriors who took fenis were initially stronger and faster. But it did not take long before the downside began, before they became delusional and irrational. Eventually the drug made them psychotic. He should have seen that it was happening to Netra. He should have stopped her.
He would not fail her again.
It was late afternoon when he decided to climb another dune. Maybe he would be able to see a way out.
This time he carried Netra with him, not wanting to leave her alone in the sand. It seemed to take forever, but finally he made it to the top of the dune. By the time he got there he was shaking from the heat and the strain and his water was gone. He had to set Netra down and stand with his hands on his knees until the blackness in his vision had passed. When he straightened and looked around his heart jumped.
There was a spire to the southeast, shimmering in the heat waves. Had he reached the rocky canyons at the edge of the desert? But there was nothing else beyond the spire, only unbroken sand dunes. Dazed as he was by the heat it took him a minute to realize it was not a natural spire. It was too symmetrical. Which meant that it was manmade. Was there a buried city out here? Netra had never said anything about there being one.
It didn’t make any difference what it was. There really were no other options. They were out of water. It would be hours still before the sun set and the heat let up. There was nothing else but sand in every direction. It was the spire or nothing.
He gathered Netra up again and started towards it. Fortunately, the dune he was on, though it bent around in a long arc, seemed to be heading generally for the spire. Walking on top of the dune, while not as easy as walking along the bottom, was many times easier than climbing the dune had been. A breeze even came up, stirring the sand so that it blew around his ankles. The wind was hot, but it felt good, drying his sweat and cooling him. He felt somewhat more hopeful.
Over the next hour the spire drew closer and what looked like the roof of a building was revealed beside it. At the same time the wind increased, so that Shorn pulled Netra’s cloak tighter around her and pulled his hood down lower to keep the sand from his eyes. His thirst grew more intense and he could not help but think that if there was no water to be found up ahead then he and Netra would die. The thought brought increased determination and he set his jaw, willing himself forward at an increased pace.
At first he did not notice the howling in the distance, focused as he was on simply putting one foot in front of the other. Only when he heard the same howl coming from the opposite direction did he finally look up. Ahead and to the left was a tornado of red-orange sand. He stared at it, surprised. Turning, he saw that there was another one behind him to the right. They were similar to something called hovidos that he had seen a couple times in his youth on Themor, but much bigger and denser. As he watched, they grew even taller and thicker.
All of a sudden a hollow boom echoed across the desert as the one in front of him exploded into flame. Shorn’s eyes widened and he spun in time to see the other one do the same.
Then they began to converge on him.
Shorn stared at them for a moment in disbelief. What kind of crazy place was this? Sand didn’t burn. And it sure didn’t chase people down like prey.
Which didn’t change the fact that they were definitely getting closer.
“Sorry, Netra,” he said, tossing her over his shoulder. It wasn’t going to be a smooth ride.
He ran along the top of the dune, keeping an eye on the one that was ahead and to his left as he went. The wind was blowing harder, screaming around him, driving the sand into his exposed skin and obscuring visibility. Already only the top of the spire was visible, jutting up from the far side of the next dune over. It would be invisible in a minute. The dune he was on was veering further to the left, towards one of the fiery tornados and away from the spire. It was time to take the plunge.
Shorn half-ran, half-slid down the face of the dune, somehow managing to keep his balance and not drop Netra. The blowing sand was thicker in the trough between the dunes, so bad that he ran with his eyes nearly shut, choking. The burning tornados were dimly visible through the blowing sand, their roar growing louder with each minute.
Shorn charged up the face of the next dune, cursing the sand as he went. It was like running in glue. It pulled at him greedily, reluctant to let him go, almost actively trying to drag him under. Every breath was a battle and his limbs were made of lead, but he fought his way upward, refusing to give in to weakness. On and on he climbed, until it seemed he had been running in sand forever, chased by fiery demons. His skin was starting to blister. The roar of the tornados had turned into a shriek.
All at once he reached the top of the dune. Blinded by the sand, he lost his balance, and fell over and down, trying to shield Netra with his body. They rolled and slid until they were brought up short by contact with something hard. A stone wall. Standing, he leaned against the wall and tried to shelter Netra as best he could in his arms. He could smell her hair burning. His skin was on fire. Sun and sky were gone, replaced by sand and the glow of the burning towers of sand as they closed in. The wind was howling like a wild thing.
Shorn stumbled along the stone wall, feeling it with his free hand. If he did not find a way in soon it would be too late.
All at once there was an opening. But it was small, not even big enough for Netra and far too small for him. Setting Netra down, Shorn put his hands into the opening and grabbed one side. The wall was easily several feet thick. Placing his foot against the wall, he took hold of one side of the opening, leaned back and gave a mighty heave. At first nothing happened, then with a groan, the stone slid outwards a little. He shifted his grip and threw everything he had into it. A stone as big as his chest pulled free and Shorn shoved it aside.
Grabbing Netra, he shoved her through the opening and then dove through after her.
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