the adventures of longtail:

sleeping fury

by
xiangjun zeng

part three


[ + links to:  A Distant Sun  -  The Adventures of Longtail ]

1.

Soft radiance from the glow lamp sitting on the ancient desk caressed the parchments Lemnu was writing on. The easy chill in the air brushed against his ears, numbing them in a pleasant way and cooling him. Gentle breeze outside his windows brought the faint scent of perfumed flowers from the Grand Bridge garden into his quarters. He enjoyed working during the night. It was quiet, and here in his sanctuary, he could settle into the familiar embrace of his comfortable chair with no one to disturb him.

Lemnu had buried himself in work since the departure of the Sand Strider. There was much to organize and prepare for the return of Elder Nimi's mission. Many of the longtails coming back had been away from the Red City for a long time. Temporary housing would have to be found for them, as well as some way to feed them. They would need to handle the refugees coming in from Howlstone as well, since Howlstone had a sizable staff present on the Steaming Jungle. They, too, would need a place to stay, while they find a way to send them back to Howlstone. The Howlstone longtails were welcome, if their stay was a short one.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing him were the Tree Dwellers. Lemnu had taken a tour of duty in a Tree Dweller ‘city’ in his younger years. It was an intense experience. The Tree Dwellers made their homes in enclaves that were…grown....on giant trees that stretched to the skies. They were quite literal tree dwellers. A wry smile crossed his lips. Tree Dweller was not their name for themselves of course. The longtails were never known for their talent in naming things.

Climate on the Steaming Jungle could not be more different from the Red Desert. The heat on the Steaming Jungle was a physical force that could be felt, wrapping itself around him and suffocating him. It had taken the better part of his year there to adapt to the heat. Lemnu feared that the Tree Dwellers would not take to the conditions in the Red Desert, and would die. That would make everything they were striving for in vain. 

Lemnu closed his eyes and leaned back. It was a hard problem, and he had no solutions other than wild and impractical ones like building giant, permanent steam-houses. He felt tired. He had been at his desk for hours but it was much more preferable than much preferable to letting his mind go still. Dark thoughts haunted him, and his mind kept circling back to the Sand Strider and Mauf, spiraling into an endless whirlpool of worry and anxiety.

He tried to push away the niggling doubt that made its lair at the back of his mind. His decision to send Mauf away by himself ate at him. If Mauf was to grow, he had to step out of Lemnu's shadow at some point. Coddling Mauf could only stunt him. Uncertainty plagued him and he found his thoughts twisting back to the youngling, and whether he had killed his adopted son by sending him away.

Putting down his quill, Lemnu rubbed the furrow between his brows. He was getting old, becoming soft and sentimental. He got up and walked over to a small stove, where a pot of lin root tea simmered. The pungent smell of ground lin root wafted out as he poured himself a cup. He brought the brew close to his snout and inhaled. Most longtails found the smell of lin root intolerable, but the herb had calming properties and it helped soothe the turmoil that roiled him.

Sipping the tea, Lemnu walked over to the windows. The comforting glow of the Grand Bridge drew him. A sense of gentle calm settled within, bringing with it a measure of peace. Feeling more at ease, he swept his gaze across the temple grounds, drinking in the graceful swaying of the trees in the Grand Bridge garden, bathed in the soft luminance of the Aetheric Tether. Motes of glittering light sparkled and flitted across the garden grounds as nocturnal insects flew in their nightly dance, catching and reflecting the light.

Then, he frowned as his eyes caught a glimpse of frenetic activity. Across the plaza, past the Grand Bridge, was the Treasury Quarter, Dhasi’s dominion. The lights were on and there was a real furore brewing. Well, he would have to ask Dhasi what was going on in the morning. Lemnu did not lack for problems at the moment, and that one would have to wait.

Lemnu turned back to his desk, intent on finishing the plans for the city builders before he retired for the night. As he settled into his chair and picked up his quill, he heard heavy footsteps storming down the corridor outside.

Unease and apprehension resurfaced, breaking through his hard-earned tranquility. The footsteps stopped at his door. Lemnu's grip on his quill tightened.

Dhasi burst into his quarters. He was wild-eyed and disheveled, with robes thrown on in haste over unkempt fur. The stout Elder’s breathing was laboured from running. “The Sand Strider is lost!” Dhasi panted in broken gasps.

02.

Lemnu sat in the Council Room, drawing his coat against the damp chill. He had come straight from his quarters. He was tired and beset by a thousand grim thoughts. Frustration, despair, worry circled him like vultures. Fear most of all. Fear for Mauf. Fear for the city if all hands on the Sand Strider were lost. If the mission failed, they would have no time to mount another one. Without the Tree Dwellers and their incredible abilities with plant-life, Red City would starve out within the year, and the Library would be lost along with it. And Mauf would be gone. Lemnu huddled further into his coat, seeking comfort.

The other Elders were silent, wrestling with their own demons. Osli slouched into his seat, glaring at nothing, no doubt peeved at having to wake up at such an hour. Dhasi was pacing around the room, tensed and wound with nervous energy. It was annoying and Lemnu wanted to snap at Dhasi more than once to stop. Imru was nowhere to be found.


 A carrier bat had arrived from Dhasi’s staff in Howlstone bearing the ill-tidings. There had been absolute pandemonium when word arrived. The report had said that the Sand Strider had been attacked by a Rock Toad that had been sighted near the city.

 A creature straight out of myths and legends, it was a gargantuan beast. A mountain, in the way it looked and behaved. It hibernated for long periods, in time spans that outlasted kingdoms. Only one had ever been found and recorded in the annals of longtail history and most longtails thought that to be a myth too, a tall tale spun a hundred years ago. That it slept right beside Howlstone for all these centuries with nary a hint of its existence…. That it should wake now……

 In less trying times, Lemnu would have been ecstatic at the news of the discovery. He would have sent teams to observe. To prod the beast if necessary, so they could learn and record. Instead, it felt like a cruel joke from the Old Gods, that their desperate efforts to survive would be thwarted by something no one even knew existed for sure.

 The poor acolyte who received the message had not known what to make of the news, and agonised over the decision to wake Dhasi and tell him. His regret was instant when he did, for Dhasi had berated him with the intensity of an angry sand mule at having been disturbed over such nonsense. When Dhasi had at last read the message, he had shoved the acolyte to one side and rushed off in a panic to wake his household.

 Dhasi had came to Lemnu first, and together they roused the reluctant Osli and summoned the representative from Howlstone to the Council. The Sand Strider was their best hope to escape the consequences of the Prophecy, and its loss was an enormous blow. It had been Nimi's flagship; the best, most well-manned sandship they had in the fleet, and the only one that could harness a sandworm massive enough to make the journey to Howlstone inside a month. They had to try to persuade the Iron King to extend a charitable hand and send a rescue mission.

 Easier said than done. Relations between Howlstone and Red City had always been tense. Howlstone was a rugged city. It sat nestled within a rocky peninsula that made access by the Dune Sea tricky. Due to Howlstone’s inaccessibility, few merchants would make the journey to the city. Their one saving grace was the Grand Bridge, but because it pointed outward, it was difficult for them to receive trade from the rest of the Inner Worlds. Little of the Old Ones’ grace could thus be found in Howlstone.

 Howlstone had always had to rely instead on their own craftsmen and farmers to provide for the city. Iron and coal from their mines brought them industry, and there was space enough to grow some of what they needed. Red City had never shied away from exploiting Howlstone’s vulnerabilities in wrestling trade deals that favoured Red City at great expense to Howlstone. There was little love lost between the two cities because of that.

 Tentative knocking sounded on the thick wooden doors of the chamber. A nervous young acolyte entered and in a shaky voice, announced to the room. “Elders, the Howlstone representative has been summoned and is waiting outside.” She shuffled her feet. The mood in the room was thick with tension and she longed for escape.

 Dhasi looked over to Lemnu. Lemnu gave a small nod of acknowledgement. “Send him in,” Dhasi said. Not for the last time, Lemnu wished they knew where Imru was. They could not afford to fail here. Dhasi was a good negotiator, but he was a blunt hammer. The female had a way about her. A way of drawing out and manipulating even her enemies into doing what she wanted. The Spider was a well-earned name. 

 There was another timid knock on the door, and the same acolyte returned. This time, a short, muscular male accompanied her. He was dressed in simple leathers, looking less like a longtail than a large rock. His fur was shot with gray. Bite marks on his ears and scars betrayed a life of tough challenges. The grizzled male’s manner was gruff, eyes puffy at the hour, but a brightness in those gray colored orbs betrayed a sharp wit behind that rough exterior. The acolyte cleared her throat. “Th...The Howlstone representative, Lars.” 

 “Me thanks, youngling.” Lars rumbled, sounding like granite scraping across stone flooring. He offered the young acolyte a kind nod. She gave a tremulous smile, as afraid of Lars as she was of the Elders. She excused herself and bolted from the Council Room. Lars took the opportunity her exit presented and studied the room, taking in the subtleties of the scene, his posture relaxed and nonchalant.

 Dhasi stepped forward, his own demeanor transformed. He held himself with a regal bearing, drew himself to full height and spoke in a booming voice. “Welcome, Representative Lars. We thank you for visiting the council at this unpleasant hour.” It was like watching two prize-fighters squaring off, Lemnu thought. He had to admit, all that glitter and lace Dhasi wore gave him an impressive presence right now as he stepped into his element.

 “Aye.” Lars met Dhasi’s gaze, unperturbed. He stood, waiting for Dhasi to make the first move. There was a brief struggle of wills as the two males tried to stare each other down. Dhasi stepped in close, using his bulk to establish dominance as he invaded Lars’ personal space. Lars, a veteran of many such meetings, held his ground. He had been trade representative to Red City for many years, and had too many dealings with the rotund Elder to capitulate to his intimidation.

 Dhasi switched track. In an instant, he was jovial and affable. Smiling, he patted Lars on the shoulders and brought him towards the table. “Please Lars, take a seat.” Lars pulled out a chair and sat. “Would you care for some refreshments?” Dhasi didn't wait for Lar's answer. He rapped his knuckles on the table a few times. “I had my staff bring out sweetcakes from Howlstone. You know the bakery along Burring Walk? In East Peak near the Round. I am quite in love with it and bring it in regularly! It is most delightful with hot tea.” An acolyte emerged in the midst of Dhasi’s chatter from the side study, bearing a tray of glazed sweetcakes and a pot of hot tea.

 The stout Elder took the tray from the acolyte and served tea to the representative himself and sat beside him, using his girth to crowd into Lar's space. Wise to his ways, Lars paid Dhasi no heed. The Howlstone representative reached out and took a sweetcake. The pastry was small, but dense and heavy. It was filled with dried fruits and nuts, glazed on the top with a thick layer of honey. Lars dipped it into the butter at a side tray, popped it into his mouth and chewed. Flicking the crumbs on his fingers away, he took a sip of the hot tea.

 “Good,” he grunted.

 “How are the grandchildren, Lars?” Dhasi continued the prattle. “When was the last time you were able to go back?”

 Lars reached for another sweetcake. “Been a while, aye. Younglings all grown up now.” Traveling to Red City was easy, because of the Grand Bridge, but Skybridges only went in one direction. The only way back to Howlstone was to risk a journey through the Dune Sea and face an uncertain fate, like the Sand Strider did. Lars had not been home for many years.

 Dhasi well understood this of course, which was why he played the card. He softened his features. “The young ones, they grow so fast. My own buck, it seemed like it was only yesterday that he was this big.” He gestured with his hands, around the height of his knees. “Suddenly, they are all grown up and don't need us anymore.” he sighed. “It's hard for a father, or grandfather," gesturing towards Lars, "to miss their first steps and all that.”

 Lars eyed Dhasi, wondering what he wanted. “Begging your Holiness’ pardon, ‘twould be good to hear the reasons for me summons at this hour. Surely not for sweetcakes, methinks.”

 Dhasi continued chattering as if he had not heard Lars. “How long have you been here Lars? 10 years now? More? Any thoughts of ever bringing your family here?” He buttered one of the sweetcakes himself and munched on it, then took a long sip of hot tea. “Ahhh, I can never get enough of these. I ought to get that baker and have him move here too!” Lars said nothing. He could hear a honey trap in those words; Dhasi was dangling his family as bait in front of him for whatever he was after.

 “Of course, it can get costly out here, but you have the Iron King faithfully here for so many years now. You deserve to have your family here.”

 The edge of Lars’ lips twitched upwards. He could play games too. “Your Holiness likes them sweetcakes that much it seems. Very well, a strong letter of recommendation to the Iron King for Your Holiness then. ‘Twould be a tough sell, but we will try.”  

 Dhasi didn’t miss a beat. “Will you now? That’s fantastic Lars! I can see a very strong friendship forming in the days to come. Very strong!” Dhasi’s eyes gleamed as he spoke. Lemnu wasn’t quite sure if Dhasi was serious.

 “But now we must move on to our real purpose.” Dhasi discarded the jovial mannerisms like a cloak. “We didn’t invite you here at this hour to talk about sweetcakes.”

 “Indeed.” Lars murmured, straight faced and without a hint of irony.

 Dhasi leaned in, whispering, as if to confide a deep personal secret to Lars. “There has been…..an incident in Howlstone.” Lars raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but said nothing. After a long, dramatic pause, Dhasi continued, “You would not believe this friend. You have heard of Rock Toads?”  

 “Aye, I’ve heard the legends.” The way he tilted his head with the barest ghost of a smile told Lemnu that the gray-haired fox had already heard the news. Osli’s eyes narrowed, and he exchanged a glance with Lemnu. It appeared that they had underestimated the extent of the Iron King’s network here in the Red City.

 Dhasi pretended not to notice. “Well, friend Lars, I had thought them legends too.” The Elder shook his head, and heaved a heavy, theatrical sigh. Dhasi reached out without warning and gripped Lars’ hands, hard. A slight twist crossed the Howlstone representative’s lips. Lars was caught off-guard and he didn’t like that, and he didn’t like Dhasi touching him.   

 “I am torn, friend Lars! Torn between joy and grief. Between wonder and despair. Tonight, we discover a legend! But….!” Dhasi placed a hand on Lars shoulders, as if he was in the throes of great emotional upheaval, and needed support. Lars kept a stoic mask, but that twist at the corner of his mouth got a little harder.

 “Lars, my friend. Tell me.” Dhasi looked Lars full in the eyes. “If you see someone in danger, would you stretch out a hand to help?” Lars said nothing. “Of course you would. You are a decent and upright longtail. Honorable. Aren’t you?” Dhasi kept his gaze locked on Lars.

 A long, uncomfortable moment passed. “P’raphs, Your Holiness. Honour is a tricksy word.” Lars rumbled at last. Lemnu’s breath slowed. Dhasi’s exaggerated performance was starting to wear the representative down.

 “You’re right. Of course you’re right, my friend. Truly, it breaks my heart when good, brave longtails that risked their lives carrying seeds and timber to….!” Dhasi gave a gasping choke, as if he were on the verge of crying.

 Lars narrowed his eyes. “Beg pardon, Your Holiness?” A crow of victory resounded in Lemnu’s head. They had got him. Lars might not care much about the loss of the Sand Strider, but the seeds and timber it carried were valuable to Howlstone. The timber above all. Good hard wood was worth its weight in gold in the Red Desert. More.

 Dhasi knew better than to give Lars what he wanted to know right away. “Such a tragedy...and yet..a Rock Toad!” There was wonder in Dhasi’s voice. “To think that, in my lifetime, we would discover such a legend! We shall be legends, Lars, like Black Mane himself!” Dhasi spread his arms wide. He glanced over at Lemnu and gave him a wide smile.

 “Lemnu would be beside himself to be able to study such a magnificent creature, would you not Lemnu?” Lemnu forced himself to give an enthusiastic smile and nodded. In truth, Dhasi had the right of it. Any other time, Lemnu would have been in the grip of delirious excitement.

 The diversion worked like a charm. Lars’ obvious irritation at Dhasi’s change in topic gave Lemnu a small sense of satisfaction, and even Osli relaxed his scowl a little. “Begging Your Holiness’ pardon.” The representative raised his voice, his volume a little too loud. Dhasi turned round to look at Lars with a comical look of surprise on his face that Lemnu wasn’t quite sure was real or not. “Pardon me forthrightness, Your Holiness. ‘Twas something about a lost ship. What be ye needing?”

 Lemnu heaved a huge sigh of relief. Inside. He dared not let it show for fear that Lars’ would put his guard back up. The Iron King would not care about the loss of the Sand Strider, might indeed see it as a victory over Red City, but Dhasi had the foresight to load it with cargo and what it carried was a great temptation to Howlstone. Howlstone used a great deal of timber for their endless engineering projects, and seeds from the Tree Dwellers to grow their crops. The Iron King would send a salvage party and take the cargo for himself if nothing else. That was still help of a kind. Help for Nimi, help for Red City, and help for the Library. Help for Mauf.

 Dhasi opened his hands in an imploring gesture. “Oh Lars! You have no idea! The largest and fastest ship we had! The Sand Strider! Red City’s pride and joy! Loaded with all manners of goods and helmed by our very own Nimi...now lost….” Dhasi trailed off, letting Lars fill in the blank himself with how much cargo the Sand Strider might have carried.

 Dhasi reached out to clasp Lars’ hands again. “So close, my friend, they were so close. Just outside of Howlstone, only to be sunk by a legend….” There was a shimmer in his eyes and a mournful timbre in his tone. Lemnu shifted in his seat, uneasy. He wondered if Dhasi might be pushing it just a little too far.

 Lars kept his features bland. “We could send help for your people Elder, but Howlstone be a poor city...” The representative shrugged.

 “The Temple would be glad to help with equipment and field rations of course! We cannot expect your men to go out into the desert without support!”

 “The Iron King thanks Your Holiness, but ‘twere just a matter of equipment and rations….” Lars shrugged. “Would that we could spare the hands. Our citizens, it’s all they could do trying to survive. Life be harsh in Howlstone….”

 Lemnu switched off. The discussion was over, and now they were just haggling over what Lars would present to the Iron King. He left Dhasi to it and his thoughts drifted as Dhasi wrangled terms with Lars. His mind strayed back to Mauf, as it often did in the past weeks. Lemnu was too weary now for the sharp, biting worry that haunted him since Dhasi burst into his room, but he offered a silent prayer to the Old Gods anyway.

 He was still lost in past memories when he heard chairs scraping back. Lemnu looked up and saw Dhasi clasping Lars’ arms. It seemed an agreement had been reached. He stood up as well.

 “Lars my friend, I knew I could count on you!” Dhasi said as he gave Lars’ arms several vigorous shakes.

 “No promises Your Holiness. I be writing a strong letter to the Iron King, but he be the one to make the final call.” Lars said.

 Dhasi clapped Lars on the back as he showed Lars out to the door. “The Iron King is a hard one, but he values your words, of that I have no doubt! I have nothing but the best hope for news my friend!”

 Lars said nothing as he stepped out of the Council Room. He gave a small bow and said as he left. “A peaceful night to you, Your Holiness. What’s left of it.”

 A sour look crossed his face as soon as Dhasi closed the door behind him. He grabbed another sweetcake from the tray and wolfed it down. “The Old Gods take him and his Iron King!” He muttered, hammering his fist on the table. There was no need to ask what he meant. Dhasi had just signed away a valuable cargo to the Iron King at a huge loss. It was a hit to the Treasury’s coffers, and Dhasi’s House had just lost an enormous fortune.

 Then again, the entire cargo would have been lost to the Dune Sea if they could not get the Iron King to move. It was a great misfortune either way, but at least Nimi and her crew stood a chance, and the mission could continue, in Lemnu’s opinion. “You did well, Elder Dhasi,” Lemnu said. “We would have lost much more. You did well.”

 Weariness stole over him. Adrenaline had buffered him in the crisis, but now he felt every bit of his age. All he wanted now was to wrap a warm blanket around himself and go to sleep. He pushed his chair back and got up, his movements slow with the weight of fatigue.

 “My thanks for heeding the summons, Elder Osli,” he said to the gaunt Elder.

 “Waste of time,” Osli grunted, still in that slouch.

 Dhasi eyed Osli with the same sour expression. “You wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss if the merchants stopped being able to trade Tree Dweller goods. Your thugs would have no one else to squeeze for ‘protection money’,” he snorted.

 Osli gave a lazy shrug. “Where’s Imru?” There was ice beneath the languid tone.

 “Couldn’t find her. Off somewhere to ply her schemes no doubt.” It was Dhasi’s turn to give a shrug. Dhasi didn’t care much for the Spider, seeing her as a meddling busybody. Their paths seldom crossed and he had no interest in her deeds.

 “That’s no good.” Osli’s words were flat, and he wore a dark, stony look.

 Lemnu understood Osli’s hostility. They were implacable rivals. The Spider’s plotting had interfered with Osli’s interests many times and he did everything he could to thwart hers. Lemnu didn’t much care for her intrigues, but she was dangerous and her plans often meant trouble.

 He didn’t give a damn right now. Sleep beckoned, and Imru would have to be another problem for another day. “Good night Elders.” He left the Council Room without another word.

 03.

 The halls of the Granite Palace was a stark place where colors had been chased out like unwanted children. No tapestries, nor paintings hung upon its walls. The windows were shuttered, and no torches were lit to lift the pall that held sway across its cavernous hallways. Vases, flowers or other artworks that might have soften the atmosphere had been banished and the stale scent of still air and disapproval seeped through the stone walls.

 It was a joyless space, reflecting the sentiments of the male that now sat upon its throne. Even the servants that scurried about keeping its immaculate walls wore livery of drape gray; coarse woolen garments whose sole virtue was their functionality and durability.

 A young buck, a page, hurried through the corridors of the Granite Palace, stopping only when he reached a small wooden door. There was nothing to distinguish it except for a massive iron handle fashioned with pointed edges, making it uncomfortable to grasp. The buck carried a missive that had arrived by carrier bat from Red City for the Iron King. He was nervous, shifting his livery this way and that, smoothing an already spotless garb.

 As well he should. The Iron King was harsh and brutal, with a squat, thuggish exterior and a mean demeanor to match. He had fought and schemed his way to the Iron Throne, deposing the old king through vicious tenacity and shrewd cunning. With little use for flamboyance, he had ruled Howlstone ever since with an iron fist. He also had little patience for incompetence, and disloyalty was met with swift and final punishment. Suspicion ran through his nature like a fissure, making it easy for the Iron King to see that disloyalty everywhere.

 Taking a deep breath, the page closed his eyes and knocked on the door. After what seemed like an eternity where his nerves frayed one by one, a low rumbling thunder boomed through the door. “Enter.”

 The page opened the door and step through, quiet and timid as a mouse. The Iron King was seated in an old chair that protested his weight with every shift and movement behind a heavy desk that had seen better days. Unlike the rest of the Granite Palace, the Iron King’s room was well lit from two huge windows behind him, granting him a sinister halo. It was sparse, with a simple cot shoved against a wall, and had nothing else in it except a trunk and stacks of heavy tomes scattered about the room.

      The Iron King had one of them open on that desk. He was going through it, tracing the sentences with his fingers and mouthing the words. The page lowered his eyes and waited, not daring to so much as to breathe aloud.

 “What do you want? If you have nothing for me, get out.” The Iron King had climbed his way up from a digger in the iron mines, step by blood-soaked step. He had taken great pains to study the letters and better his speech to get the respect he craved. Try as he might however, he could not erase his low-born accent.

 The page swallowed. “A…..a missive by carrier bat for you, Your Majesty,” he rasped. Fear made his tongue thick and his mouth dry. “From the representative in Red City. Lars.” He kept his eyes lowered, wishing he could be anywhere but here.

 The Iron King marked the page he was reading and closed the book. It was a simple children's tale, of the legendary explorer Black Mane and his escapades on the Dune Sea. He looked up.

 It was a countenance of great strife that regarded the young page. The Iron King’s face was a mess of scars, testimony to his tumultuous rise to the Iron Throne. An ugly scar, remarkable even amongst his many savage wounds, ran from the crown of his head past his left eye, his snout and lips, creating a permanent sneer. Sunlight poured through a hole in one of his ears where a heat spear bolt had torn through. His gaze was unsettling and the page shivered, wanting nothing more than to sink into a hole and escape.    

     “Read.” 

 The page bowed even lower, and broke the seal on the missive. “Majesty. As expected, Temple Elders came to us. Sand Strider, carrying seeds and timber. Elder Nimi on board. Crew rescue in return for reduced price on cargo. Very favourable terms, at two thirds. Please advise. Your servant, Lars.” *

 The Iron King leaned back, and his chair groaned. He scratched the long ugly scar that blinded his eye, thinking. He would have sent a salvage team anyway. No sense in letting good wood go to waste, and sand ships had plenty of wood in their wreckage. This was the Sand Strider however, and the cargo it carried….He was tempted to ignore the robed idiots and take everything for himself. Letting Nimi’s corpse rot in the Red Desert would remove an adversary from the chessboard as well.

 It was the Rock Toad that gave him pause. Like everyone else in Howlstone, he had felt the tremors of the creature’s attack. That was not a good thing to have running in his backyard, even if it slept most of the time. It was a threat, and he might need Red City to help drive the nuisance away later. Or charge them a ransom to ‘study’ the thing.

 “Tell Lars to push for half.” He owed Red City no good will, and he would take whatever he could from them. They’d pushed their luck often enough, and he meant to let them feel the pinch now that the shoe was on the other foot. “Get the Red City rats to pay for salvage cost as well. And tell Gerti I want her here. Now.” The young page bowed and beat a hasty retreat.

 The Iron King stood, and his chair creaked in relief. He walked towards the window and gazed over the city, with its flat roofs topped with smoke stacks spewing fumes from the coal furnaces that Howlstone’s inhabitants use. Fingering his scar again, he ruminated about Lars’ missive. Of all the scenarios he had considered when news of the Rock Toad and the ship it sank had reached his ears, he had not expected to hear that one of the Temple Elders might be on board. His instincts, honed by years of treachery, from others and his own, strummed like a tight wire. Those Red City rats were up to something.

 He kept fingering his scar, thinking. An inkling of a plan began to form and take shape as he stared at the tiny, scurrying forms of his subjects in the streets below.

 04.

 Lemnu sat back into his seat in the Council Room, weary tedium pinching his features. Lars had returned with the Iron King’s demands, to cut prices even further. To half, in fact. Dhasi’s eyes had bulged when he heard it. The request to pay for salvage, petty as it was, was the final straw. Dhasi had exploded in rage, storming up and down the hallways of the Temple, uttering curses that blanched the acolytes and younger priests who heard them, sending them scampering out of the Elder’s way.

 Thus began the endless talks with the Howlstone representative. Dhasi tried his best to push Lars into changing his mind. Not that it mattered a whit if Lars changed his mind. It was the Iron King they needed to persuade, not his lackey, and the Iron King wasn’t here.

 This particular round had gone on for a while. The farce was getting to be mind-numbing, and Osli had fled the Council Room hours ago, citing urgent matters. Dhasi was not so much persuading anymore as he was shouting at Lars. Not for the first time, Lemnu wished they knew where Imru was.

 Imru would have found some way to turn this around. She was best at this sort of intrigue. She would have cajoled, seduced or blackmailed Lars into doing what she wanted. If none of that worked, she would have set plans into motion to force Lars into doing her bidding.

 Her absence was troubling, and not just because they needed her now. When the Spider retreated into the shadows, it boded ill. For everyone. 

 Dhasi’s wounded ego at being on the vulnerable end of a negotiation with Howlstone, which he had always regarded as lesser, had already put him in a miserable mood. He was trying to browbeat Lars into submission. Lars, for his part, had remained calm and ignored the Elder, vexing him further.

 Lemnu rubbed his temples as fresh rounds of loud, acrimonious invective sprang from Dhasi. Enough was enough. Every hour they spent indulging Dhasi’s resentment was an extra hour Mauf was stranded on the Dune Sea. He would not let his son die, and allow Red City to suffer the consequences of the Prophecy over Dhasi’s affronted pride. He stood up and walked over, meaning to pull Dhasi away.

 Just then, the doors to the council room swung open with a crash. Pairud-Sha came sweeping in.

 Lemnu and Dhasi stared at the Head Priest. Pairud-sha looked like a peacock, even more gaudy and ostentatious than usual. He was in full ceremonial regalia. The orarion of his office, a heavy cloth made of the finest silk embroidered with intricate imagery in golden threads and adorned with tiny gemstones, was thrown over a rich brocade. A lavish mitre, almost too big for him, crowned his head. He carried a staff, made of heavy solid wood that was worth more than the gold used to carve the golden sun that sat atop. It was garish, and even Lars regarded the Head Priest with something close to contempt.

 Pairud-Sha puffed up at the attention. He puffed up at any attention. The Head Priest preened as he soaked it in. “A tragedy, Elders, about the Sand Strider,” Pairud-sha boomed in a theatrical voice. “Words have reached Our ears that you have been locked in counsel with the good representative from Howlstone.” He lifted a hand in benediction to Lars, who gave a little shrug and bowed his head to receive it.

 Dhasi exchanged a grimace with Lemnu.  “Your Holiness, we did not expect you here,” Dhasi began, his voice stiff. “We have the talks well in hand and were just concluding….”

 Pairud-sha heaved a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Elder Dhasi, one of Our own is in grave danger. We cannot idly stand by and do nothing.” He spoke in a slow, gentle tone, as if explaining something to a none-too-bright child. Dhasi’s ears stiffened in outrage at the condescension, but he held his peace. “Report to Us, Elders. Tell Us what you have achieved on Our behalf,” Pairud-sha intoned, as if he were the one to have set the Elders to this task.

 “It goes well, Your Holiness,” Dhasi said through gritted teeth. “Very well. Why don’t you...”

 “Make yourself comfortable, Your Holiness, and we will give our accounts,” Lemnu interjected. He leveled a glare at Dhasi, who subsided, looking like he had swallowed something disagreeable.  

 Pairud-sha granted them a grand nod. He strutted over to his Council seat and sat down, gesturing at Lemnu to continue. There was a ghost of a smirk playing on Lars’ lips. Lars would be surprised, but Lemnu could scarce contain his own satisfaction at this turn of events. This deadlock might be broken after all.

 “Your Holiness, things are going very well indeed, as Elder Dhasi had said,” Lemnu began. “We have already secured the Iron King’s generous aid in sending out a rescue team. He is a staunch ally for us indeed.”

 The Head Priest gave a gracious smile to Lars. “We thank Howlstone for her generosity, Representative Lars. And your own efforts in relaying Our needs. No doubt your eloquence had helped swayed the Iron King’s compassion to Our needs.” 

 Lars bowed low, to hide his sardonic smile. Lemnu continued. “The Iron King had even offered to recover and purchase the cargo that the Sand Strider was carrying, at a generous price….”

 Dhasi gave a strangled grunt, and Lemnu spoke right over him, raising his voice. “A most generous price. Wouldn’t you agree, Elder Dhasi?”

 “Yes.” Dhasi reply was faint. Defeated.

 Pairud-Sha beamed. “Most wonderful news, Elders. We commend you both on your good work.” Turning to Lars, the Head Priest continued. “We thank you and Howlstone, your magnificent city, again, Representative Lars, for coming to Us in Our hour of need.” Pairud- Sha stood up. “Let Us pray, and offer Our thanks to the Old Gods, who lit and showed Us the way, and who brought Us together in these dark times.” *

 Lemnu stood with him. If the over-dressed fool wanted to feel that self-important, Lemnu would indulge him. He had done something worthwhile after all, by breaking the impasse. Dhasi looked as dark as a thundercloud. He wanted nothing more than to storm out of the room, but gritted his teeth and stood glowering at Lars, who ignored him.

 So began another long-winded sermon that Lemnu paid little attention to, except to murmur at the right places. At long last, the Head Priest concluded, “The Old Ones grant Us wisdom, and guide Our actions with strength and courage.”

 Lemnu and the others bowed their heads and murmured the refrain, “The Old Ones grant Us wisdom, and guide Our actions with strength and courage.”

 Pairud-sha held the moment, then opened his eyes. “The Old Gods bless you and the Iron King, Representative Lars. We know you will take in Our dear ones who were stranded and offer them succor and comfort for as long as they need.” He smiled at Lars, then gave a long and significant look at Lemnu and Dhasi.

 Lemnu almost lost it. The peacock thought he was playing some subtle game, and had scored a point by gaining Nimi entrance into Howlstone to complete their “mission”. He returned a solemn look and nod to the Head Priest, trying not to burst into hysterical laughter. The Head Priest swept out of the room, in as grand a fashion as his entrance.

 Lars tapped a finger to his forehead, in a mock salute to Lemnu and Dhasi, a small but satisfied smile on his face. Dhasi slumped into a chair with a glum look, staring daggers at Lars’ back as the representative left.

     Lemnu put a comforting hand on Dhasi’s shoulders. “I know you lost a lot today, Elder. We would have lost much more if Nimi had been lost as well.”

      “Aye,” Dhasi said after a long pause, a woebegone expression still on his face as Lemnu left the Council Room.

 05.

 The sun's rays stabbed into her eyes as she lowered her spyglass. Grains of sand coated the insides of her mouth, and she tried to gather enough spit to spit them out. It was futile and Nimi gave up. There was a dryness in the air today that whisked away and stole every bit of moisture it could find. At least it was not hot.

 Weariness shackled her like manacles of lead. She wanted nothing more than to slump into the ground and sleep for a week. Her crew was watching however, and Nimi kept her back straight with as much pride as she could muster. She needed to set an example, and her crew drew strength from her. She could ill-afford to let them down.

 Not again. Not so soon. Not after such a disaster.

 Nimi put the spyglass to her eyes again, surveying the terrain. They had been on the march for about a week now by her reckoning. What salvage they had managed to recover from the Sand Strider’s wreckage had kept them alive, but their supplies were running low, and her ragged crew was close to the edge.

 Ragged in body, but not in spirit. Her crew in the makeshift camp were a sorry sight; half starved and in desperate need of water and sleep. Fire still shone in their eyes however, and they held themselves straight with discipline as they went about the camp on their myriad duties, caring for what equipment they had left and keeping watch.

 She squared her shoulders. Good sailors, every last one of them, and she drew strength from them as much as they drew from her. Nimi turned her attention back to her surveying. Fortitude and mettle could only drive the body for so long without sustenance, and they needed to get to Howlstone soon, or they would perish. From thirst, or from any one of the many dangers that roamed the Red Desert. She needed to find an unbroken track of land that would bring them to safety, across the numerous rivers of sand that snaked through the valley.

 Footsteps sounded behind her. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Pilot.” Nimi turned around. One of her veterans, a sailor that had been with her for a long time, stood at attention. He was gray-haired and filthy, clothed in threadbare uniform frayed by the long ordeal and covered in sand. As they all were. His athletic frame was made gaunt by privation, and yet his bearing was straight, eyes bright with alertness.

 He was a sergeant, she remembered. Two more years to mark twenty in her service and he would have earned his way to a name. “At ease, sergeant.” She resolved to keep him alive long enough to see that he got to the Naming ceremony.

 The sergeant relaxed a fraction. “Guard on west end says he’s seen signs o’ wild wa’erpouches. Might be worth get’ing some bodies out there.”

 “Show me.” This was good news. Very good news. If they could harvest a colony, that might buy them a few extra days. Not much, but perhaps enough to get her crew to Howlstone alive. The sergeant turned on his heels and marched a quick jog through the camp to where the scout was.

 Nimi turned to call Phael, to tell her to get the Captain to join her, and caught herself just in time. Phael was gone. She took a deep breath. Time enough to grieve later. She had to focus on getting her crew out. Nimi quickened her pace and followed the sergeant.     

 The guard that claimed to have found signs of the wild waterpouches stood holding a cudgel, his attention focused outside of the camp. They had set a perimeter guard when they stopped to make camp at daybreak in a small hollow sheltered on one side by a huge boulder. It was a nice hidden spot that granted some safety from the roaming predators that stalked the daylight hours of the Red Desert.

 Nimi softened her footsteps as she approached. “Where is it?”

 Without taking his eyes away from the horizon, the guard swung his arm out and pointed towards a flat valley just past a cliff. “Over there, Pilot. Just past them cliffs. Bit of a walk.”

 He was right. Nimi judged the valley to be at least a day’s hard march, and there’s a cliff in the way too. It would also put them on a detour away from Howlstone. The dull gray-green patch was a large one, however, and promised them several days’ grace from death’s grasp if they rationed themselves. 

 She swept the spyglass to her eye. There did not seem to be any way around the cliff. They would have to do some climbing if they wanted to reach that gray-green patch. Which, she was happy to see from her spyglass, did indeed look very much like a waterpouch colony.

 Nimi clapped the guard on his shoulders. “Good work, sailor. You may have saved us.” The guard swelled in pride as he saluted.

 “Thank you, Pilot!”

 With a final pat on the guard’s back, she motioned to the sergeant as she returned to the main camp. “Find me three sailors, sergeant. Stout of heart, good at climbing. And get the captain to attend to me.“ The sergeant snapped a salute and trotted away.

 Nimi left to find the quartermaster and her ship captain found her getting ready and checking the equipment they needed for the long hike to harvest the waterpouches. Ropes, sacks for the waterpouches, and climbing pins amongst others. “Pilot. The sergeant said you wanted to see me.”

 “Guard on the western perimeter spotted wild waterpouches. Day’s march. Another to return. Heading out in an hour. I’m taking three with me.” She checked the strength of the ropes and struck the iron climbing pins a few times to test their sturdiness.

 “In daylight, Ma’am?”

 Nimi held up a knife to her eye and checked its edges. Waterpouches had strong bark. Cutting through them would be hard work. “We won’t last for much longer. We’ll have to take our chances.”

 “And you’re leading?”

 “That’s what I said.”

 “Why?” There was no answer from Nimi. The quartermaster, sensing a storm brewing, stepped away to ‘check’ his inventory.

 “The apprentice, she…”

 “Watch yourself Tasch.” There was something dangerous lurking in Nimi’s quiet words. The captain stopped what he was about to say.

 “It is unwise, Pilot. At least wait until nightfall.”

 “No. It is a long march. We can’t afford to waste time.”

 Sensing that he was not going to persuade Nimi, the captain said instead, “What are your orders?”

 “Break camp at dusk. Take the crew and head towards Howlstone. Keep going. We will loop over to regroup when we’re done. If you don’t see us on the second day, keep going.”

 The captain frowned, but only said “Aye, Ma’am. What about the young priest?”

 Nimi looked as if she had eaten something sour. “Drag him along. If he can’t keep up, dump him.”

 She didn’t quite care if Mauf lived. He was the sort of male that Nimi just had no time for. Weak in body and spirit, and useless in a crisis. The youngling could not keep up with the march and straggled, limping in hours after the main column had stopped for the day. She had to assign a crew member to babysit him and he took more than his allotted rations. And why should Lemnu get to keep his protégé anyway, when Phael had died?

 Just then the sergeant trotted up with two other sailors behind him. She recognized both of them and nodded her approval at the sergeant’s choices. Byr, a slight, wiry male whose appearance belied his strength. He had a keen nose, and would be excellent in tracking the waterpouches. The other was Seb. Stout and muscular, he was nevertheless nimble and agile on his feet and had a strong back. They had entered her service at the same time, both second sons of merchant houses with no hope of inheritance, and had proven themselves many times over.

 The trio saluted as they drew near. “Byr and Seb reportin’ for the expedition, Pilot,” the sergeant said.

 “I asked for three.”

 “Be fillin’ that last spot meself Pilot, if it pleases ya,” the sergeant replied.

 She nodded, then addressed the three of them. “We’ve spotted a wild waterpouch colony. We need it. It’s a day’s march away, past a cliff. We’ll be traveling through the day. The main group will be press on while we’re away. Once we have harvested the waterpouches, we will march north-east to catch up with the main column. Any questions?” There were none.

 “Grab your gear.” Nimi gestured at the equipment she had laid out. “We head out in an hour”. 

 6.

 Soft swishing of shifting sand was the only sound they made as they scurried through the desert. They watched as a small group of uprights left the big group they had been following. The scent of the uprights drifted through the air, agitating them. Uhhhh, so tasty...bones so hard and so crunchy, flesh so soft, so tender, cut them to pieces so blood can flow! Blood so thick and sweet....So hungry….so hungry….but caution. Caution. The uprights can hurt. Better to hunt the smaller group. Better. Then they can come back for the rest. Oh yes.

 They clawed and burrowed into the sand, chattering to each other. Soft, so the uprights wouldn’t hear. Soft, so they could track and follow them.

 7.

 Nimi loped through the desert with long, rhythmic strides. She led the way, with the sergeant bringing up the rear of their small group. There was no banter. They needed to cross the desert as fast they could with as little noise as possible. It was unwise to call attention to themselves while crossing the Red Desert in daylight, and they needed to save their breath.

 Thirst gripped her throat, but she pushed the thoughts of water away. She focused on keeping her breathing even, and keeping her steps light, pushing off with the tips of her clawed toes.

 After an hour of running, she held up her hand and the group slowed to a fast march. She had kept up this rhythm of running and marching since they left camp, conserving energy and covering as much distance as they could. She meant to reach the first waypoint before long, a small recess carved into a rise she had seen in her spyglass. They could take a brief break, and check to see if any unwanted attention had latched onto them from the wild creatures of the Red Desert.

 Behind her, Seb reached out and touched her elbow, a signal to stop. She raised a clenched fist and they gathered, kneeling in a tight circle facing outwards. “What?”

 “Something’s trackin’ us ma’am. Could hear ‘em faint like.” The sergeant spoke, pitching his voice low.

 Nimi stilled herself and strained her ears. Long moments past. Silence. "I hear nothi..." Before she could finish her sentence, she heard it. A soft chattering, quick and abrupt, and far into the distance.

 "Scrubbers, or blade weevils. Too far to tell, but either way, trouble," Byr said. "Suggest we get some high ground, Pilot." His tone was grim. “Climb the hill at the rest point? Knives are no good to us.”

 Nimi hesitated. “No. We’ll be trapped. Pick up the pace, we start running.” Wasting no more words, she set off at a trot, and the rest followed her.

 They ran for hours. Fatigue crept in, and their strength flagged. She could hear the labored breathing of her crew. They had passed the rest point ages ago, but dared not stop. The chattering, soft and distant before, now became louder and more frequent.     

 Sep took a stumble, but caught himself. “Steady,” she called out. “It’s almost dusk.” Nimi scanned the horizons, looking for a place to take shelter with. They wouldn’t last until dusk. Just then another chattering sounded. Their hunters were closing in. “Keep running.”

 They ran. Their breathing became ragged and their muscles seared by exhaustion. It became harder and harder to lift their legs. Lungs on fire, hearts pounding like hammers.

 Someone staggered and fell. She turned back. It was Sep. Byr and the sergeant came up from behind and scooped him up, taking an arm each. They kept running.

 An undulating cackle pierced the air. And another, and a third. “Don’t stop!” Nimi called out.

 Desperation lent them strength. Gritting her teeth, Nimi willed herself to go faster, to push past the burning in her legs. They kept running. Somehow, they kept running. Her world shrank until the only thing in her mind was thrusting one foot in front of the other.

 She near missed it. “Pilot!” The sergeant bellowed. “To yer front!”

 A dark missile flew at her. Nimi caught the streak at the edge of her vision, and ducked just in time. It whistled pass, clipping her ears. Warm blood trickled down into her face. Loud whining split the air.

 “Blade weevils! And they’ve got the scent o’ yer blood!” The sergeant called out.

 More black missiles flew towards them. The four of them dropped to the ground and covered their heads as the blade weevils flew past them overhead. Nimi struggled up. “Keep moving!” she yelled. They dashed off, ducking the occasional black streak.

 “They’re herdin’ us!” the sergeant panted.

 “I know!” Nimi replied, gritting her teeth. They could do nothing except run. “Sound off!” She needed to know that her crew were still alive.

 “Here!” The sergeant grunted his reply.

 “Byr!”

 “Se..!”

 Seb’s reply was cut off by a scream. A black missile hurtled past and struck the ground in front of Nimi. The iron scent of blood filled the air. Snarling, Nimi drew her knife and leapt towards the landed blade weevil. She plunged the knife into the oily, black carapace of the squirming insect and twisted it. Foul-smelling ichor gushed from it and splashed onto her face as the creature twitched and died. She wiped off the ichor with her sleeve.

 She turned around. Seb’s severed arm lay beside him, soaking the sands around it red with blood. His face was pale with shock. Byr had his own knife out, ineffectual as it was against the blade weevils, guarding the two as the sergeant attempted to bind Seb’s wound.

 “Seb! Speak to me!” Nimi called out as she dashed back.

 “I..I’ll be right..in a jiffy, Pilot.” Seb huffed through clenched jaws. He struggled upright as the sergeant finished tying the makeshift tourniquet.

 “Can ye run lad?” The sergeant asked.

 Seb took a deep breath, then roared as if he could push the pain away by sheer willpower. “Aye, sergeant!”

 The sergeant clapped him on the back. “Good lad!” They lurched off, as fast as they could while encumbered by Seb’s grievous wounds.

 The blade weevils toyed with them. They had surrounded them, and could have gone in for the kill any time. Slowed as they were with a member injured, Nimi and her crew could not hope to outrun them.    

 They struggled on as hard as they could, but alas, Seb’s strength expired at last, and he crumpled to the ground. “Leave me..” He gasped.

 “Shut up Seb!” Nimi growled. She bent down and hauled the beefy male on her shoulders, staggering under his weight. The sergeant caught Seb’s other shoulder and together they lurched onwards.

 Their bravery was in vain. The blade weevils popped out from beneath the sands, their oily carapace glinting in the setting sun, and surrounded them, cutting off their escape. Nimi and her crew closed ranks, holding out their knives, bleak as the shadow of death loomed over them.

 The chittering bugs edged closer.

 Several balls of fire flew through the air and landed at their feet. The burning globes gave off thick plumes of acrid smoke. Some mixture of charred wood, sand mule dung, and herbs. Whatever it was stung their eyes and choked them, but the effect it had on the blade weevils were startling. They whined in protest, dug back into the sand to hide from the smoke and burrowed away.

 Nimi coughed and tried to breathe through the bitter smoke, blinking her tears away to clear her vision. She wondered what was happening. Sand mules, three of them, emerged from the thick fumes. Then her eyes widened.

 Sitting astride the lead sand mule, with its legs dangling almost to the ground, was a vision from a fevered dream. It was insectoid. Slim and graceful, it had an angular head. Chitin plates ran down its back, and strange gills that glowed in soft bioluminescent radiance ran down the sides of his neck and chest. Two long antennae swept backwards from its snout.

 The creature swiveled its head, antennae weaving in gentle circles as it regarded them. It spotted Nimi and a strange thrilling sounded from its throat. “Greetingss, from the Iron King. Elder Nimi, I presume?”  A series of throaty clicks followed the words. Its gills flared in a soft, rhythmic pulse, casting a strange ethereal light.

 Nimi could not believe her eyes. A Stone Singer.