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Dust


The only thing keeping his mind off the thirst was the dust. The godforsaken dust. It had covered his body in broad swathes of red, caking in every crease of skin and even the faintest reservoir of sweat. It puffed out fine from his leather kilt with every step, but every step kicked up more from the cracked earth, and the cycle continued. Part of his face had been coated when he first wiped his brow against the heat, and even now he could feel that it had worked its way around his eyes. They seemed to creak as he squinted in the sunlight. It was only a mild annoyance, all things considered, but he gave it his fullest attention. Anything less would remind him that he was without water. And that even if he was successful, he had a day, maybe less. He would not be returning home.
                The memory was a beacon. His sandals bit at the dirt with a purpose.
Home. The village. A small collection of collapsible tents and caravans, migrating from oasis to oasis around this dust bowl alongside the herds and flocks and swarms and storms. A community of survivors burnt hard and hardy by generations under the sun, hunting when they could, foraging when they couldn’t. They tracked long, slow arcs around the wasteland in time with the barely noticeable change of seasons. They eked out an existence on the outskirts, because there was nothing to eke in the centre. Not even buzzards where seen to venture there. There weren’t even bones. Just the hot dry breath of hell. And so the village walked in circles. Always following. And always being followed.
He coughed and swallowed around a coarse, withering tongue. He ignored the chafing at the back of his throat and thought about dust.
They seemed to come from the centre, though. The things. Nothing could live there, in the desolation, but then no one had said anything about being alive. They were black. Not the living black of pigment, but a thick, tarry darkness that seemed to have no substance, like a silhouette, until they came close, and a slight and moist sheen was visible on their skin, or fur, or feathers. It was as if a pure and oily midnight had seeped into them, corrupting them, preserving them across the wastes and filling them with the unceasing hunger of the sands. Even the dust avoided them. So at least they were easy to spot. Most often they were birds or snakes, sometimes dune wolves – those attacks were intermittent and mindless, simply one of the more dangerous nuisances to be faced down in this inhospitable homeland. They were like rabid dogs, mad and hungry, and putting them down was just another task to do.
But every so often it would be a man – or the shape at least, for the hollow eyes, seemingly all pupil, betrayed a distinct lack of anything even remotely human, and an empty scar filled the place a heart should be. At times like this the attacks were organised and in groups. The things would charge in waves, flank the caravans, swoop to distract and disorientate, slip in under tents and blankets. These battles were calculated, each mindless black beast positioned with a tactical precision to best tear at defences and strength and flesh. At times like this, whatever in the dust bowl had produced these hollow, wandering evils found a way to coalesce them into a single terrifying unit. And all the while, at the top of the nearest dune, there would be a hole in the world in the shape of a man. A silent and motionless puppeteer.
It was becoming harder to keep his mind focused. The heat haze shimmered in the distance like liquid, its waves reminding him of the noticeable emptiness of the calabash on his hip. He was going to die. His legs would fail, he would collapse, and his life would wither and crumble. He had a day, maybe less. He could dwell on it, he thought with a vague pang of regret, but he had a task to do. He turned his attention to his opposite hip, and the sword that hung there.
Not a handsome sword. Not bright or true or finely crafted. It was hardly even sharp. It was notched, and dull, and caked in what one could only hope was mud and the cancer of old steel. But there was a weight about it that surpassed just its thickset heaviness. It was cumbersome and unwieldy, but somehow he managed, and when he gathered the momentum required to swing it, it carved – like a glacier, slow and unstoppable.
To waste good steel was a tragedy in a place like this, but his sacrifice would be worthless if he went unequipped. The man-things were skilled and dangerous, as strong-willed and resilient as the village trained its own warriors to be, and it could only be assumed that whatever created them in the heart of the dust bowl would be the same – focused and fearless. So there would always be a sacrifice. In the aftermath of every terrible battle, once the devils had been cut down and evaporated into the heat, once the wounded had been treated and the dead committed to the sands, the remaining warriors would gather and volunteer for the hunt. The final pilgrimage. There was no reward, no honour – just the simple knowledge that two lives were worth more than one. This was his choice.
He checked his progress against the sun and turned further north, fighting the inevitable shifting sands as he made his way up a fresh dune-face. This was all he had seen for the last six days. Sand. Dust. Dirt. The endless shore against which heat-waves crashed; every dune a horizon, and every horizon a mirror of the dune that came before it. The monotony had been broken only once, on the fourth day, when he was still lucid enough to be observant. Exhausted birds were a common enough find, and he had heard stories of areas so devoid of life that the dead could remain whole for centuries. But the fine tendrils of oily darkness that had snared the creature’s corpse were a mystery. Where they touched flesh they burrowed into it, filling the wound with a black sickness with every unnatural throb. He had known better than to touch this evil directly, but was wholly unprepared for the pervasive shrieks that filled his senses when he cut at the tendrils with his blade. It had been his first and only indication that his pilgrimage might yet meet with success, and he held fast onto this thought even now, as he crested the dune to see –
                – a field of steel. Swords lay scattered about the place, some half-buried in the sand, some dug deep and upright like gravestones. There were dozens of them, possibly hundreds buried out of sight. He slid down the dune to the nearest and tried to blink a freshness into his eyes. The blade was coarse and worn where the elements had gnawed at it, the hilt was wrapped in fraying leather strips, and on the pommel three small coloured feathers hung from a short braid and spun when the wind caught them. He weaved his way through the cemetery, and slowly a mournful fury gripped him – hundreds of feathers danced on braids before him. It was all he could do not to keep his hand from feeling his sword for his own.
                A hundred years, it seemed. His people had been sending one of their own to this empty grave for a hundred years, and this is where they had died. But if there was a battle, where were the bodies? Where was the devil, the monster, where was the reason and the source of this hollow cycle of death and sacrifice? There was an evil here – there had to be. If not, then his people where plagued by simple mindless violence. If not, the sacrifices of a thousand feathers before him had been for nothing. And he would die here too, without reason or purpose.
His will broke.
And with his knees in the sand, and all hope and steel stripped from his mind, he knew – there was an evil here. In the cold clarity of defeat he could feel it, but he couldn’t see it. It pulsed, a shockwave of hate and hunger that moved through the ground and into his soul. Veins of anger. Terror. He slipped a hand into the earth and felt it more clearly. Destruction radiated out into the furthest reaches of the wastes, and it started here – somewhere here, close to his fingertips.
Frenzy overtook him, and he flew wildly into the sands. Clouds of dust rose about him as he spread his search in long, deep arcs, like a child playing. Concealed swords sliced at his arms, sand burnt his eyes, but he pressed on, digging, sifting, feeling, pulling his way onwards through the earth. He could still feel the beating, and pushed himself towards it. He could feel the darkness, feel the coldness of it despite the blisters forming on his back. He could feel –
Leather. Something small. Something pulsating.
When the dust had settled, and he had cleared what he could from his cracking throat with a dozen burning breaths, he opened his eyes. A heart lay on the ground before him, smooth and dry. Black. Beating.
There was no ceremony to how he stabbed it. No righteous mockery to accompany the high-pitched wail that disappeared into the wind. His face was impassive and exhausted. His shoulders hunched over the hilt of his blade, pressing firmly into the heart as unnatural black liquids seeped out of it – out of the very sands themselves – into a pool of oily blackness.
Finished. He let go. Stillness return, as did the sun. And the dryness. And the pain. He had a day. Maybe less.
                The sword quivered slightly in the earth, its point still pinned in a pool of that vile water, stark black against a dusty red, so cool in that heat, so enticing, so inviting...

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