Across the Wastes
Another week crept by, leagues dragging on in a painful parade. They took to traveling mostly at night, for it was easier on their bodies. The Wastelands were murderous in the middle of the day. Merciless and silent, they were far deadlier than any Berserker. Yet another dawn came upon them, and the temperature dropped lower than usual. It seemed forever before the cold ebbed away into warmth.
The wagon creaked to a halt so they could eat a hasty breakfast and doff their heavy cloaks. They had another three to four hours before it became too much to go on, and it had become part of the journey. They stopped to eat and rode on as much as the suns would allow.
The lands were changing the deeper they rode. It soon became pockmarked with a host of craters and broken rocks. The sand was firmer, easier to walk on. Night was fully dissolved now, all traces of it lost among the gleaming red skies. Off in the distance, a heavy shadow could be seen, and an ill feeling crept into them. There was nothing this far out. No villages and no outposts. Even the horses felt the change.
“What do you make of it?” Emerald asked. She was as unfamiliar with this part of the desert as the rest of them, save the Viper. They were well past the Frontier’s border.
The Viper grimly replied, “I’d say it’s a well. An old way station, perhaps. We should reach it by the time we stop.”
“Make for a nice place to rest. Plenty of water to bathe with,” Snake offered. He’d been regretting his decision since the day they got off Gaalk’s barge. Being an infantryman, he was no stranger to getting down and dirty for prolonged periods of time, but the desert was murdering him. He was dehydrated, tired and filthy from excessive exposure, and the prospect of having a nice cool bath sounded more enjoyable than a cold ale with a complementary woman at its handle.
“I have not seen one so large or elaborate,” Kane said. “We must be cautious.”
“He’s got a point,” the Viper added. “I don’t seem to recall seeing this here the last time I was through these lands.”
Undaunted by their primitive fears, the Mad Hosking spurred his horse forward.
“Can you see anything?” Kane asked Gage, ignoring the crazed youth’s brashness. Gage’s eyes were closed, his sense reaching out to the sight. Uncertainty blocked him at every turn. Whatever was there had no desire to be discovered.
“Nothing,” he said. “I see no good, no evil. It’s as if I was being warned.”
“Might be bandits,” Emerald said.
The Viper shook his head. “No. Bandits never stay too long in one place. They have no reason to come out this far. No human caravan has come this route since the days of the old empire. It has to be an old well.”
“I’m not sure,” Gage said.
Kane grimace. He could already feel the heat pounding down. “Whatever it is, we need to get moving. Time is running out for us.”
“I’ve never seen so many people so willing to die,” the Viper muttered, kicking his horse into the column following the Mad Hosking.
Another two hours found them riding into the foundations of large shadows. Rocky terrain formed gullies and steep ravines around the center of the area. A well was indeed there, one as old as the first Northland invasion. The bricks were time weathered and worn beyond serviceability; no doubt the water below, if any, was corrupted by the sand and grime growing unchecked.
Sculpted sand mounds sprouted across the desert way station. They were burned into near glass, heightening Kane’s worries. Closer examination showed the mounds to be statues of men and women twisting in agony. Who in their right mind would erect such a place so far from civilization? Dozens of statues were scattered in and amongst the dunes and rocks. The pains forever etched looked genuine, as if the artist had perfect understanding of the human condition.
Gage’s senses were reeling. There was an unholy air to this place, superb and unnatural. He could feel the terror flowing from them, stretching out to warn him lest he share the same fate. He was convinced this was an evil place.
“Can you smell that?” he asked the others.
Nathan stopped what he was doing and sniffed the air, paying attention to the heavy odor for the first time. “It smells familiar. What is it?”
“Sulfur,” the Viper grimaced. “There’s but one creature out here with that stench.”
Emerald looked nervously around. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Do we stay or go?” Snake Eyes asked. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
“We stay,” Kane answered, leaving no room for discussion. “The horses are tired and need rest. Dusk is only a few hours away. We should be safe until then.”
The Viper laughed and remounted. “Go and set up your camp. I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t like the idea of being caught unawares.”
Spurring his horse forward, the assassin was around the bend before Kane could protest.
Going unnoticed by the rest, the Mad Hosking slipped off too. He had other ideas than wasting time with a cozy camp. The maze called to him, beckoning him to explore its horrors. Pain so pure pulsed from the glassy dunes, mirrored in the statues eyes.
Their horror pushed at him, threatening to whelm his soul with their torments. His senses warned of ambush, but his body stood frozen. Screams only he could hear wailed on the winds. It was in that instant he fully understand the meaning of the dale. They had all been alive once, just as he was. He wondered what power could turn flesh to glass and felt the first inklings of fear slink through his veins. It was only a matter of time before the horror struck at them.
The screaming got louder.
Hosking dropped to his knees, covering his ears in a futile attempt at silence. “No!” he shouted.
They carried on, desperately trying to warn him. Trying to help him before it was too late.
Listen to them. They show you the true path you walk.
Hosking screamed in kind. Lost in rage and swirling agony, Yonash felt his world crushing down, choking the life away. Life was against him, despite his best interests. A pain so deep he knew there was no recovering ate at his heart. Blood was seeping from the corners of his eyes. He felt a force clutching his soul, crushing tighter. Lost in the rage, the Mad Hosking snatched up his rifle and drove the butt crashing into the nearest statue. The dead man burst apart, shattering in contact. Pieces of glass showered down on him, and then the madness stopped.
What have you done?
The voices in his head were confused. They could feel the changes taking place in their host, could feel their sudden uselessness. He was escaping!
“You no longer have hold over my soul,” Hosking told the voices. “Burn in the Seven Hells and bother me no more.”
The plague was dying, decaying before his eyes. The voices cursed him; damned him until a threatening wind silenced them forever. The Gods had been offended and would soon seek to make him their example. He was fine with this, having resigned his faith long ago. The oddest part came from being so alone. His mind was empty. He knew he was never going to be the same again, for Yonash Hosking owed the Gods, and they meant to use him.
Watching them from the front of the wagon, Gage suddenly found the attraction between Nathan and Emerald fascinating and lonesome. Memories of his own love came to him, and it was all he could do not to cry. His emotions had been in check for so long he wasn’t sure if he had any tears in him. His own sadness had been buried until now, and he found himself longing for his homeworld. Emerald noticed his distant look and walked over to him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Gage smiled, weak and unconvincing. “Nothing, my dear. Go back to your friend and try to get some rest. I have a feeling it’s going to be an eventful day.”
She didn’t like the sound of his premonitions, but that was another matter. Hooking her arm around his to keep him from getting away, Emerald persisted.
“You really shouldn’t bottle yourself up like this. I know. It’s only going to make it hurt more when the time comes. Tell me what’s wrong.”
He smiled again, thinking how she was going to make Nathan a very happy man. “If you insist. I saw you standing there with him and couldn’t help but think how good you two are together. Almost as if the Gods made you for each other.”
She tried hiding her blush.
“I was once in love,” he said.
It was Emerald’s turn to smile. “Tell me about her.”
“I hardly know where to begin. It’s been so long you know.”
“Start with her name.”
He paused for a moment, reflecting on the woman who had once claimed his heart.
“Elourina Saulein. A very lovely and noble woman.”
“Pretty name,” Emerald said. “She must have been grand.”
“At least to me, she was. We used to spend entire afternoons just talking. I think I miss that the most. Conversation with a telepath is quite irksome from time to time. Not the same as two normal people. She had the most beautiful laugh. Just like a songbird. I’ll never forget that. We were supposed to be married upon my return. I doubt now that I shall ever she her again.”
His voice trailed off, choked up by quiet sobs. Emerald’s arm snaked around his waist in a tender hug and silently held him.