the adventures of longtail 1:

sleeping fury

by
xiangjun zeng


[Following Longtail: A Prologue, the story proper now begins.  Reader, you are about to be transported to a far-future Red Planet...]

1.

             The Grand Library of Red City. Rows of books lined the multitude of shelves in the dark caverns of its underground halls, kept dry and cold to preserve the pages of knowledge in the same way one would preserve a corpse: In respect, and forgotten soon after.

              Candles, housed in lanterns wrought in cunning fashion that pulled smoke away from the books, gave pitiful illumination. Lecterns, shelves and sturdy vaults housing priceless legacies of the Old Ones crowded the vast hall, throwing grotesque silhouettes in the dim, fitful light.

             Secluded into a quiet corner of the Grand Library, a young priest, risen into the frock not long ago, perched on a Reading table. A Reader was an artifact the Old Ones used to go through their archives. He was translating the Old Ones' wisdom displayed in ghostly letters projected into the air by the Reader.

             The archive was rescued some years ago from a ruin by an itinerant vagrant. The foundations of the ruin had been eroded by the currents of sand and neglect. It would, in time, be swallowed by the Red Desert. The archive would have been lost to oblivion had the vagrant not found and extracted it from the ruins. The young priest had spent the last year working on it.

             Curling his snout, the young priest flicked his whiskers in disdain at the memory of the vagrant. He had been unkempt and smelled. He spoke not a word when “presenting” the archive. Selling would be a better word for that mercenary act.

               He had replied to the priesthood only in gestures and the disrespect grated on the priest. Worst of all, he had let his tail run free, not coiled into a tail-sheathe like a civilized Longtail should.

             Pushing his drifting thoughts away, the young priest bent back to his task. Recording the words of the Old Ones was a sacred duty that deserved his respect and attention, for it was by the grace of the Old Ones’ wisdom that the Longtails had thrived.

             He also did not want to disappoint the temple elder that had sponsored him into this task. Indeed, the elder had sponsored him into the priesthood, lifting him from the gutters of an ignoble life amidst the squalors of the city slums. The elder was more than a father to him. He had given Mauf his name.

              A name. Even now he could remember the heady excitement he had on the day he was granted one. Names were important in Red City. They gave station and rank. The longer the name, the higher the status. The Head Priest had three.

               Mauf had had no name, a sign of his mean birth. He was born to criminal parents, doomed to a short and brutal life in the slums, until Elder Lemnu had given him one. An identity. And hopes and aspirations. 
 

              The Elder was the Keeper of Wisdoms, and it was he that oversaw the retrieval, restoration and safekeeping of the Old Ones’ legacies. Under his tutelage, Mauf had discovered in himself an uncommon ability to understand the Old Ones’ writings.

               When Elder Lemnu had entrusted the task of recording the Old Gods’ words to him, his heart had swelled with a fierce, beating pride. It was a moment of incredible honor to him, and he was determined to do his best.

             Time crept past like a thief, so lost was he in his work. He did not hear the soft whisking of robes upon the marble floor as an acolyte stepped close. A whisper broke him from his task. "Brother Mauf, Elder Lemnu requests your presence in his study."

            Mauf blinked as his thoughts swam back into the present, and flicked his fingers in dismissal. The acolyte bowed and stepped away as Mauf stood. He swept his hand over the Reader, putting it to sleep as he left.

             Stepping out of the massive stairway that led into the Library, Mauf squinted against the flare of the evening sun. A moment passed, and he opened his eyes to gaze upon the splendor of the Temple. The ethereal glow of the Skybridge, heart and soul of the Temple, reached out beyond the skies and into the stars, a beacon that shone day and night bathing the Red City in its serene light.

             The Skybridge sat in the center of a magnificent garden, nestled within a grove of trees shaped into graceful sweeping forms, canopies blooming with flowers that bathed the area in a gentle perfume. Cobbled paths wound through the garden, lined with lush bushes and vines swaying in placid calm. Moths flitted through amongst the trees, their gossamer wings scattering the golden light into sparkling motes, playing off the soft murmurs of a hidden stream.

            The garden is the only one of its kind in the Red Desert, an extravagant display of the wealth and power of the Temple. The plants had been cultivated in the Steaming Jungle by the Tree Dwellers, the best horticulturists in the known worlds, and shipped with great expense into Red City through the Skybridge. A fortune in water was piped to the garden through ancient aquifers that ran beneath Red City.

           The Skybridge was what breathed life into the Red City. It was a Grand Bridge, several times the size of others. It made possible the transportation of vast amounts of goods and people, concentrating wealth into the Red City. The Library was another important axis of the city, as it added the wisdom and might of the Old Ones.

            Past the garden were buildings that housed priests and their activities. Beyond that, walls rose high like a protective cradle. They guarded the sanctity of the Temple from the rest of Red City, from the merchants and the city officials that came asking for favours and boons, to the wretches of the slums who crammed their mean abodes in ramshackle fashion in the shadows of the city.

             Red City did not sit in a special location. It might not be the worst place for a city in the Red Desert, but Mauf would be hard pressed to name a worse one. It lay on a barren, rocky piece of land where only the most desperate of creatures would call home.

             On the east, the city was bordered by tall, craggy mountains daunting even for vultures. They were impossible to scale, although that did not stop the foolhardy youth of wealthy families from trying. The broken bodies that returned from such unfortunate trips did not impress Mauf. They paid the price for their stupidity.

           The north was guarded by the dangerous Dune Sea, impassable except by well-fortified Sand Ships willing to brave the numerous sand worms that lurked beneath. The occasional Sand Urchins, fearsome creatures of immense size that are indistinguishable from sand dunes, also roamed the Dune Sea in search of prey. The spikes that gave them their name would burst forth when prey got close, impaling with such force as to pierce through rock like fragile glass.

           To the west and the south stretched the dried-out husk of a land. Waterpouch farms had once dotted the landscape. The farms had bled the earth, draining it of whatever moisture it held and now only the most hardy clung on, eking out an impoverished livelihood.

           Despite the challenges, the Temple had guided Red City to become one most important cities on the Red Desert, rivaled only by its sister city Howlstone. The Temple had used the Skybridge and the legacies it had collected to build its influence and wielded that with skillful mastery to bring Red City into prominence.

           That was until a decade ago. A priest, whose name had been stricken off the records, had stolen into the Temple one ill-fated night. He had made his way past the guards to the Grand Bridge. He had tinkered with it, and under the influence of some form of insanity, managed to connect to one of the alien outer worlds.

           Mauf did not know what had warped the mind of the traitorous priest, that he would act in such a wicked way. The poisonous atmosphere of the outer world blasted through the Grand Bridge and ignited with deadly force. 

           Buildings were flattened in an instant. The blast struck out like a hammer and crushed everything in its path, tearing into the proud city and reducing it to rubble.

           Then the fire swept the city. A voracious beast, it raged through the night to the next day, painting the sky crimson and torched what remained of the city. He was a youngling then. Oh the sight, the smell. The memory of the burnt and blackened bodies was forever seared into his mind in the same way the fire had branded the city.

             With an effort of will, Mauf shook off his shrouded thoughts and continued walking. He did not want to be late.

     

2.

           A gray-furred Longtail, gaunt with age and dressed in functional garments, sat behind a sturdy desk in a neat room in wood paneled walls. Shelves stacked with tomes stood against the walls. The floor was carpeted to absorb sound and the windows were drawn, lending a gloom filled aspect that matched the furrow on his brow.

           He was paging through a text and making notes on a parchment with gnarled, ink-stained hands. It was clear that whatever he read worried him.

             A knock on his door. He answered, in a firm voice that belied his aged countenance, “Enter.”

            Mauf came through the heavy wooden doors and waited by the desk. “Mauf,” Elder Lemnu looked up. “Please, sit.”

             When Mauf had seated himself, Lemnu set the text aside and said to him, “I was going over the last set of translations you submitted.”

             A small line creased Mauf’s forehead. “Ah, yes Elder. From the archive that was pulled from the ruins. Did you expect the submission earlier?”

             “No, the timing is fine,“ Lemnu waved Mauf’s anxiety away. “It’s about what’s in it rather.” 

             He looked over his notes. “Your transcript says that a recurring earthquake on a million-year cycle will hit the Steaming Jungle. That it will cause widespread damage throughout the Jungle.”

             He paused. “And the calculations you have here give the date as six months from now.” He looked up at Mauf. “That timing seemed….fortuitous.”

           Mauf flushed. He feared his competency might be called into question. “The translation is accurate, Your Worship. And the calculations are from the texts. I but translated the Old Ones’ words.”

           Lemnu fell silent, thinking.  “Were there any more in the archive sections regarding this? In the later sections. I want you to give me everything you have.”

             Mauf spoke in careful tones, “No, Elder. The archive went on to other topics. That was all there were on the Steaming Jungle.” He paused, then spoke again, “It felt like a passing observation for the Old Ones.”

             Lemnu frowned. He leaned back into his chair and closed his eyes. A long and heavy moment passed as he deliberated.

           When he opened his eyes, he said “If what is described here comes to pass, we shall suffer a heavy loss in the Steaming Jungle. We have put much into developing our relations with the Tree Dwellers.

           “Stop your translations for now. I want you to go through the rest of the archive. Check your work, and bring me anything else on you have on this. I must decide whether I need to bring this to the Council.”

           Mauf bowed. “It shall be done, Elder.” 

 

3.

            Lemnu stood in front of the Council chamber. A week had passed since he had spoken to Mauf. He had weighed the matter in his mind and felt the risk was enough that it merited the attention of the Council.  

           It wouldn’t be easy. It was hard enough to overcome his own doubts. There was nothing wrong with Mauf’s translation. He had double-checked it. The passage in the archive was obscure. There wasn’t a lot of information, and what there was had the air of a passing observation and Mauf had been unable to find any more references. Everything was so vague!

           The Old One’s words were Truth however. They had given the Longtails the power to light the streets at night, to shape ore and carve their walls from solid rock. Eventually they were blessed with travel between worlds through the Skybridges.

           If the Old Ones said that an earthquake will happen, then it will happen. It was just so...so coincidental. That they would happen to rescue an archive that described a disastrous event with a million-year cycle, just as it was about to happen. What were the chances of that?

           There was too much invested in the Steaming Jungle however. The Red City would take a serious blow if the earthquake shattered the Tree Dwellers’ city and destroyed the industry the Longtails had set up there. It was better to be safe than sorry, he felt.

          Squaring his shoulders, he entered the Council chamber, the seat of the Temple's rule.

          For all its importance, the room was a modest affair. It was functional, of wood and stone, bare-walled and windowless. Cunning vents wrought into the ceiling gave ventilation. A wooden round table with seats sat in the center, and a small door to the side led to an adjacent room where aides might come with their parchments.

           Lemnu gave the room a quick scan. Two males and two females already sat around the table, ignoring each other. No one spoke. Their indifference was so deliberate that they might as well have been glaring at each other. All save the Head Priest were already present and waiting. Lemnu took his seat.

          There was no love lost between the Elders. Their positions were hereditary, their privilege a birthright. They were scions of the original families that discovered the Grand Bridge and founded the city. In all that time since, the families had never ceased scheming for power and influence. The rivalry was bitter, and had turned bloody more than once in the history of Red City.

           Lemnu studied those present.

          To his left sat a female with a temperament as fiery as the way she wore her fur. Elder Nimi’s ancestors were powerful merchants, plying their trade across the Red Desert with their fleet of Sand Ships. She was fearless, often leading her own expedition through the dangerous Dune Sea. Her flagship served as a powerful symbol of Red City’s might.

           Past her was Osli, a gaunt Longtail, thinner than even himself. He held a pleasant countenance that hid a heart as black as coal. Osli’s family descended from the original guard captain that led the founding group. They had continued to hold reign over Red City’s guards and militia. His influence was as palpable as the truncheon his guards often rained upon malcontents in the city. Or anyone that got in his way.

           Lemnu glanced next at perhaps the most dangerous person in the room. Imru was a stunning female, despite her age. Clad in simple but elegant silks and her gray fur coiled in flawless rings, she carried her beauty with poise and confidence.

           She was a spider and her bite was fatal. Her stock was secrets, and her trade blackmail. Her network of spies and informants gave her a window into every dirty secret festering in the city. Her ties into the criminal underworld made her one of the most connected Longtails, and she was not an opponent to cross.

           Dhasi, a rotund male, was dressed in a brocade that shouted wealth in gaudy colors. Rings set with precious stones flashed on his fingers and he wore a heavy gold chain that bore the insignia of his house.

           Which was also the Temple treasury. It was the largest bank in Red City, with fingers in every venture, and the temple’s myriad functions rested upon the wealth his house controlled, and Elder Dhasi wielded enormous clout through it.

           And then there was himself. His ancestors were scholars, and his house had control over the Grand Library. All the artifacts of the Old Ones and their archives went to him, where his army of archivists and scholars like Mauf translated, deciphered and studied.

           His was the power of the Old Ones. No one else in the Red City had as intimate a knowledge of the Old Ones as he did. That had given him the power to affect events in a way that no one else could. To turn the tide of battle, to stop disaster in its tracks, or to swing divided opinion with his words.

           He had convened the Council because it was his responsibility. His mandate was to receive the words of the Old Gods and guide his people to their manifest destiny.

           His reverie was broken by the sudden boom of the doors swinging open hard. Head Priest Pairud-Sha had arrived and he liked his entrances. He swept into the room, cloaked in a resplendent robe and carrying a bejeweled staff. He was a peacock, rivaling the garish display of wealth that adorned Dhasi.

           Chairs scrapped as the Elders rose in grudging respect. The Elders held little regard for the Head Priest, whom they considered little more than an ornament in the Temple hierarchy.

           By tradition, the Head Priest was anointed by ballot. He oversaw and sanctified the Grand Bridge, the most visible symbol of the Temple. The daily blessing rituals the Head Priest performed on the Grand Bridge as part of his office also made him a potent symbol for the Longtails of Red City. They revered him.

           Pairud-Sha was a useful idiot for the Elders, drawing away from them the unwanted attention of the rest of Red City. They gave him outward respect because his station and his name demanded it.

           When he was satisfied he had the attention of the assembled Elders, the Head Priest did what he knew best. He intoned ritual blessings.

           He led the prayers, calling upon the Old Gods to grant them wisdom. It was long. Pairud-Sha was so caught up in his own self-importance that he did not notice the impatience simmering beneath the Elders’ impassive masks. Lemnu closed his eyes in long-suffering silence.

           At last the long-winded ritual was over. As the Head Priest sat, he addressed Lemnu in pompous tones. “My son, you have asked of Us to grant the boon of an audience. We see and recognise your faithful service to the Temple and to Us. We therefore grant you the permission to address us.”

          He waved his staff at Lemnu. “Speak.”

           Lemnu bowed.  ”Thank you, Your Holiness.” He pitched his voice to make sure that it carried to the other Elders. “I will come straight to the point. As you know, part of the Library’s duties are to bring the words of the Old Ones from the archives to all in the Red Desert.”

           He paused. “In one of the archives we are transcribing, we have discovered a Prophecy that the Old Gods had left for us.” He had decided that framing it as a Prophecy was the best way to bring this to the other Elders. It would lend weight to his words.

           It succeeded. All in the room shifted, their attention caught. Lemnu continued, “In six months, a great earthquake will hit the Steaming Jungle, and destroy much upon it.”

          He looked across the room. Dhasi had gripped his chains tightly and Nimi had a stony look on her face. Of all in the room, they stood the most to lose, having invested much into the trade relations with the Tree Dwellers. Osli and Imru had inscrutable expressions. The Head Priest gaped.

          Nimi stood to face Lemnu. Before she could speak, Lemnu cut in. “The Old Ones spoke of an earthquake that revisits the Steaming Jungle on a million-year cycle. The calculations prophesied a date 6 months from now.”

          “Could your calculations be wrong.” Nimi glowered at Lemnu. It was not spoken as a question.

          “The calculations were transcribed. They came from the Old Ones.” Lemnu looked back at Nimi, meeting her challenge. He took a breath. “We were lucky.”

         “How so?” Imru asked in a low, sultry tone.

          “The archive was pulled out from that ruin a year ago, by that vagrant,” Lemnu said. “We were fortunate not to have lost it, and in turn, all that we have built with the Tree Dwellers over the years.”

          “It is clear that the Old Gods favoured Us, and guided Our hands in this Lemnu.” The Head Priest tried to regain control of the conversation. Imru gave an almost imperceptible roll of her eyes.

          Lemnu gave Pairud-Sha a bow before he resumed speaking. “Indeed, Your Holiness.” He gave a long look at Dhasi and Nimi. “There is still time, Your Holiness, to salvage what we can. Our people and holdings. As many of the Tree Dwellers as we can rescue.”

          Lemnu paused, and his voice sank low. “I need not remind us that we depend greatly upon the Tree Dwellers. Without their support, the Red City will starve and destroy itself within a year.”

         An uncomfortable silence greeted this. It was true. The Red City sat on a wasteland. The only reason it could survive was the incredible skills the Tree Dwellers had over the cultivation of plant growth, creating crops that could survive the harshness of the desert.

          “Surely the Tree Dwellers would be aware of this,” Osli rasped, breaking the silence. He had a voice that sounded like sandpaper. “It is their world. We would look foolish rushing in. Like as not, they have this well in hand.”

          A low laugh rolled from Imru. “Dear Osli, have you never spoken to a Tree Dweller before? It is like speaking to someone who had too much datang.”

          Osli paused, then grunted, conceding the point. Datang was a small hardy plant native to the Red Desert. Its seeds were toxic, but when taken in small amounts it brought intense visions and intoxication. Longtails that have taken datang were in a sense, taken to another world.

         The Tree Dwellers thought in a different way. Communications with them were long and slow affairs. It was also hard to make sense of what they say. Like a Longtail on datang, they seemed to live in their own reality. They could not count on the Tree Dwellers for help.

          “What’s your proposal, Lemnu?” Dhasi had a deep voice, low and rumbling, coming out from deep within an ample gut. He had not stop gripping his chain.

          Lemnu looked over to Nimi. “Elder Nimi. I would ask you to lend us one of your sand ships. We must send a representative to Howlstone, to travel to the Jungle. She can take control of the situation and evacuate the important assets through the Grand Bridge on our side. ”

          Nimi, who had sat back down by this point, stared at Lemnu with her chin resting on a fist. “You are volunteering me?”

          Lemnu bowed. “If you would do the honour of being the representative yourself, the success of this venture will be guaranteed.”

          Nimi snorted and looked away. Lemnu continued, “My scholar, Mauf, will be part of the expedition. He will be most useful in helping you with figuring out the exact time of the earthquake.” If looks could kill, Lemnu would be a flayed corpse right now.

          “Elder Osli, we have need of your men to keep order and control the flow of traffic when the evacuations come through the Grand Bridge.” Osli shrugged.

          Lemnu turned to Dhasi last. “Can we count on the Treasury for logistics and aid, Elder Dhasi?”

          Pairud-Sha banged his staff on the floor before Dhasi could answer, desperate to gather the remnants of his dignity. The Elders turned their attention towards him. He swallowed before saying, “A sound plan Lemnu, my son. Dhasi, you will provide succor for Our benighted people and….” He stopped and cleared his throat at the unblinking stares the Elders gave him.

          “We are pleased at the outcome of this meeting, my children.” Pairud-Sha stood up, not quite stumbling. “The Old Ones grant Us wisdom, and guide Our actions with strength and courage.” The Head Priest spoke the benediction in haste, and swept out of the council room, with as much pomp as he could muster.

          The room was silent while the Elders waited for the Head Priest to leave. Dhasi stood up. “You will have my aid, Lemnu.” He gave a nod of his head to Lemnu before walking out, the rest of the Elders following suit.

 

4.

             The stagecoach rumbled across the cobbled pavements leading towards the sandship docks. Lemnu rode in somber silence with Mauf. It had been a week since the Council meet. The arrangements for the long journey to Howlstone had been made with little wasted time. Elder Nimi always was quick in her actions, once she had decided what she wanted to do.

             Lemnu had gone back from that meeting drained. It was always a contest of wills, when speaking to the other Elders. Proclaiming the Prophecy was a dangerous gamble. Oh, he had no doubts about the words of the Old Gods. They were infallible. Yet, naming a prophecy was a weighty matter, not to be done lightly. He could be stripped of his position and cast out nameless for overstepping his authority if the prophecy did not happen as he implied it would.

          And if it did, then it would be disaster of a more literal manner. 

 

         He also felt great reluctance in sending Mauf away. It was a dangerous journey. The Dune Sea was treacherous even for a seasoned traveller like Nimi, and the Old Ones only knew what would happen on the Steaming Jungle with the Tree Dwellers.

          Mauf was dear to him, like a son.  He had seen the spark of a keen mind buried under the filth of poverty all those many years ago, when Mauf was but a youngling. He had reached out on an impulse, and taken him away from the poor quarters.

          Lemnu had never taken a mate. His single-minded pursuit of the Old Ones’ teachings had left him with scant attention for one. Time crept up on him, and all of a sudden he was in the twilight of his life, and it was too late.

          Not that he regretted his devotion. The wonders he had seen from the Old Gods…! And yet, sometimes, in the darkness of the night, he wondered what could have been.

          Mauf had filled part of that void. He had watched the youngling grow into a bright and promising adult, with a keen grasp of the Old Ones’ language.

          It was his grasp of the Old One’s language that made him the best choice to send on this trip. The Tree Dwellers had archives of their own, and if the Old Gods had left anything at all behind about this, Mauf would be their best hope of finding a solution.

          And so, in the early hours of the day, he had steeled himself. Steeled himself against the wrenching conflict of a father’s pride and the fear of losing the young Longtail.

           No, he reminded himself. His son. Not a “young Longtail”. His. Son.

          He had briefed Mauf on his mission, and what he expected of him. When Mauf had packed and gathered his things, he had summoned a carriage, riding with him to the docks to see him off. Just in case.

          He didn’t dare finish the thoughts.

 5.

          The heavy silence was broken by the loud voice the driver used to calm the sand lizards pulling the carriage as they pulled into the docks. Lemnu stepped out of the carriage into the warm glow of the afternoon sun, the gentle rays bathed over the rough-hewn rocks of the sandship docks through a clear cloudless sky.

         The docks were carved out of the craggy mountain side that the Red City nestled against. The sandships docked in the pier were the main way people and goods travel in and out of Red City where Skybridges didn’t cover.

          Sand ships were vessels made to cross the Dune Sea, a vast stretch of sand that was so soft and fine one could sink into it like water. Unlike water, the Dune Sea was dense, and impossible to swim through by any Longtail. Falling into the Dune Sea was cruel death, as the unfortunate soul sank into the slow embrace of the depths, entombed by the Red Desert.

         The sand ships stayed afloat by way of a pair of skis the ship rested on. These skis cuts through the soft sands. Giant sails hung atop tall, graceful masts providing some motive power.

          Wind could not render enough power to push the ships through sand however, and it was tamed giant sand worms that gave the raw power to pull the vessels across the endless vistas of the Dune Sea.

          A bustle of activities surrounded one of the sand ships, a large and sturdy construction of wood and iron. It looked menacing. Stevedores and sailors moved in and out of the ship, hauling crates marked with Elder Dhasi’s house insignia in.

         A gray-furred female stood overseeing the activity with a group of other Longtails. She was clad in a simple tunic and leggings for easy movements, and the way her fur streamed out behind her like wildfire announced her as Nimi.

         Lemnu walked towards her and Mauf hurried behind, carrying his luggage. Nimi heard them approach and glanced up. Seeing Lemnu and Mauf, she issued a few last orders to the assembled Longtails, no doubt her captains and lieutenants, and dismissed them. She strode towards Lemnu and Mauf in easy, graceful steps.

         “This is the pup?” She glanced at Mauf, who looked down. Lemnu nodded.

         “Phael,” she called over her shoulder. A smart young female, dressed in first officer uniform crossed over from where she had been waiting in discreet silence. 

         “When you are on my ship, you will listen to everything Phael says. She speaks with my voice." She looked hard at Mauf and spoke in a voice that brooked no disagreement. “If you do not do as you are told, I will toss you overboard for sand worm food.” Mauf swallowed and bowed.

         “Settle him in,” Nimi said to Phael. She gave Lemnu a nod and walked away in brisk strides towards the ship.

          Lemnu turned to Mauf. "Once you have arrived in Howlstone, Elder Nimi will brief you on the next steps." Mauf nodded. Lemnu looked as if he wanted to say something, but changed his mind. He clapped a hand on Mauf’s shoulders and went back to the carriage. Mauf’s eyes followed Lemnu in an expression that said he very much wanted to follow Lemnu back.

         Phael coughed and Mauf turned back to regard her. “I am Phael, apprentice to Elder Nimi,” she said, trying to sound important. “I am tasked to show you to where you bunk, and to oversee your behaviour while on the ship.”. She motioned him to follow her.

         Mauf followed with his luggage behind her. He looked uncomfortable. After an awkward pause, he squeaked out a question.

         “How..how long have you apprenticed with Elder Nimi? I have not seen you in the temple before.”

         “I’m not with the temple. I am apprentice sandworm pilot on the Sand Strider.” She puffed up and added in proud tones: “I will pilot my own ship someday.”

         Mauf stared open-mouthed. “A sandworm pilot? But you have Elder Nimi’s patronage, you could be with the temple and achieve great status instead of…” He stopped as a belated sense of self-preservation kicked in.

         Phael shot him a withering glance. “And become a malnourished pale slug like you? No thanks.” Flustered, Mauf followed Phael up the gangplank into the Sand Strider in silence.

         Phael led him through the corridors of the ship, past bustling sailors packing cargo and getting the ship ready for sail. She brought Mauf into a berth at the end of the crew’s cabin.

          “These are yours.” Phael gestured to the bunks. “You can stow your gear in the foot chest.” She stepped away as Mauf set his things down.

         “Meet me on the deck in 15 minutes,” she continued. “ I must show you what to do when Elder Nimi summons the Sandworm.” She turned and left.

         Mauf stepped out into the sun from the ship’s hold, blinking against the glare. Phael was fuming in impatience. He had taken more than 15 minutes, having gotten lost inside the ship. He found himself too intimidated to ask for directions, and longed to be back in the familiar hallways of the Temple.

         Phael saw him, and tossed him a harness. “You’re late,” she snapped. “Put these on.” Mauf caught the harness and fumbled with the girdle as he tried to follow Phael’s crisp instructions to put it on.

         When Mauf finished buckling the belt, she continued. “Your spot is over there at the stern,” she pointed. “Hook yourself in. The ship will be setting sail soon and when Elder Nimi summons the sandworm, it will get rocky. You don’t want to get thrown overboard when the taming starts.”

         Just then, a great shout went out. The ship banner was hoisted and sails lifted. Phael strapped herself in with quick, practiced movements and Mauf followed suit, fumbling with the unfamiliar mechanism.

          The Sand Strider left the dock, sliding across the sand in slow, ponderous movements. A team of smaller sand worms and their tamers pulled the leviathan into the deeper parts of the Dune Sea.

          When they were a respectable distance from the docks, the tamers released the chains and rode their worms back to the docks, saluting as they sail past. The crew of the Sand Strider flowed around the ship in experienced familiarity, setting up lines and sails, preparing the great ship for the long journey.

         A separate crew of Longtails swarmed around the bow, tethering what looked like an immense collar, ringed with sharp, wicked spikes that pointed inwards, to the ship with chains as large and heavy as itself. The collar was then lowered to a skiff made for speed and maneuverability.

         Mauf stared open-eyed as Elder Nimi strode towards the bow and leapt from it, catching the chains in an athletic act, sliding down with her wild fur streaming behind her towards the skiff.

          He could not help himself. Unbuckling the harness, he dashed forward, and watched as Nimi secured herself and prepare to call forth a Sand Worm.

         She raised a succession of colored flags, giving orders to the rest of the crew. A watcher relayed her instructions by raising similar flags and the captain bellowed orders to the crew in a booming voice.

         As the crew tied themselves in, Nimi started hitting the sand drums that would send percussions down into the sand through a buried rod. The ship fell silent as Nimi's drums thundered through the still desert air, the rhythmic pounding like the heartbeat of a vast creature.

         Time passed, and the moment grew thick with tension and anticipation.

         A sailor beside Mauf grabbed his arm and pointed into the distance. Mauf whipped his head around and saw a slow line of shifting sands snaking its way towards the Sand Strider.

         The endless stretches of sand made it hard to judge distance and Mauf did not appreciate the scale of what approached them until it was close to the ship. The undulating dunes under which the behemoth burrowed was as big as the Strider itself.

         Then Sandworm burst forth from the dunes, rocking and tossing the Sand Strider with the waves it made. Mauf hung on for dear life and gaped at the creature looming over them, its mass casting a shadow across Nimi’s flagship. It turned its eyeless head, as if tasting the air, searching for the source of the drumming.

        He had never seen one up close. The creature had an elongated head tipped with a vicious drill-like beak that it used to plough through rocks. It had tough overlapping chitin plates covering its segmented body, coated with a pungent grease that it secreted to protect itself from the sand.

         Nimi’s drumming became frenzied, drawing the sandworm’s attention. Its beak opened, revealing a maw filled with rows of razor-sharp teeth, each the size of a Longtail. It swung towards the sound and dove towards Nimi, intent on swallowing her whole.

         She detached the skiff from the heavy iron ring that held it, leaving a pair of sharp hooks behind. With an adroit move, she swung the skiff around, dodging the sandworm as it thundered past her, plunging into the sand. The chains tightened and the ship rocked with the violence of the worm’s trashing as it realised it was trapped, the hooked collar digging into its body.

         With a quick and nimble leap, she clambered onto the creature's body, sinking her hand hooks into the tiny space between its chitin plates. A sailor on watch gave a great bellow and the crew scrambled, rushing to turn the great winches that held the chains, reeling the monster back out of the sand as it tried to burrow its way to freedom.

         The sandworm’s struggle grew fiercer. The Sand Strider groaned with the force of the creature’s desperation. Mauf feared the worst; the ship sounded like it was being torn apart and that they would all be cast into the Dune Sea to their deaths.

         With implausible agility, Nimi clambered up the sandworm, timing her movements with the creature’s throes to swing forward. She reached the iron collar and threw herself at a lever, pulling it down with her weight.

          The collar tightened. So did the iron teeth. The brutal collar pierced the sandworm tough plates. The creature spasmed in pain, whipping around in a futile attempt at freedom. All it did was to tighten the noose around its neck. There was no escape.

         The sandworm gave a last forlorn heave before capitulating, lying defeated on the sand. The crew roared in approval and Elder Nimi raised her fist in victory.

         Mauf was caught by the fever of the hunt, breathe short and heart pounding, and scarce noticed when some of the crew ran past him and brushed him aside. They fired two harpoons at the worm from the bow, biting deep into the worm’s chitin.

         The harpoons carried a guiding harness, which Nimi attached to the iron collar with quick, experienced movements. With the harness, Nimi could drive the sandworm with a pair of hand drums that she would strike the iron collar with.

         Nimi raised her flags to signal the start of the voyage. The crew rushed to their stations. The collar chains loosened to give slack, and sails were lowered to catch the desert wind. Beatings from the hand drums echoed, and the sandworm stirred to life.

         The Sand Strider shuddered as the worm dove into the Sand and pulled them all towards Howlstone.