The Caravana de la Luz wends its way between the shifting dunes, across the mares, over the scablands, and around the enscarpments of the Bahir Wastes. Every morning at daybreak, Zoheir’s trumpeting bellow rouses the 200-odd travelers from their rest. The caravan is moving in short order; the swiftness of practice and of fear. Travelling at night in the Bahir is suicide or worse, and by day the dangers of the desert take many lives as a matter of course. Not a single shred of daylight is wasted. The caravan rests and eats on the move, stopping only to make camp again in the lee of a large dune or rock outcropping.
Asherati guards, bodies glowing like lamps, ring the camp at night with staves enchanted with daylight. Beyond the circle of light, shadows swirl with great violence, walls of sand impenetrable and hungry, blocking out the night sky. The wind sometimes howls, sometimes whispers in pleading voices, sometimes screams in agony. Always, just beyond the light, the darkness roils like a thing aflame. To ease fear and keep spirits bolstered, every night as darkness falls and wind howls, Maria dances. Her dance is mesmerising, and as you watch all anxiety and fear melt away, the saddle soreness and the heat-sweat and thirst all fade away and there is only the dance. You do not remember falling asleep but you awake refreshed, as does everyone who beheld Maria’s dance. She herself returns to her personal caravan at daybreak to rest.
Daybreak. Moonreaver continues to slumber in his caravan. Ardat offers his services to the people. Blue gears up for the day’s scouting; every day is the day one is likely to die, as a guide in the desert. William refuses to be discouraged by this knowledge, and continues to offer to join a scouting party. The other guides turn him down; they will not be responsible for an unnecessary death by a fool outlander. Blue, after a stern lecture on the dangers of the desert, accedes. She, William, and six Asherati guard set out beneath the burning sun.
Some hours from the caravan, the keen eyes of Blue’s hawk companion Zena sees a silhouette in the distance, some traveler stumbling and falling down the side of a sand dune. Blue sends her familiar to investigate, as the guards take up a defensive posture. Zena flies closer as the figure stands and begins to stumble towards the scouting troop. A well-rotted zombie, shrouded in tattered cloth, shambling clumsily through the dunes, Zena reports. Blue orders the guards to spread into a defensive combat posture. She knows that in this desert, the mundane kills quickly, and an apparently simple zombie is already anything but mundane.
Fear overcomes Zena and she bolts with a flap of feathers and a squawk back to Blue’s side. Something is not right. Blue raises her hands, chanting, as red, yellow, and blue streaks swirl out from her hands and coalesce into a spongy, ethereal ball with flames gouting from its surface, and hurtles forward to strike the zombie. The stench of burnt flesh carries far in the desert air.
The happens. The zombie’s attempts to avoid the flaming sphere are poor as it stumbles forward, but the keen-eyed among the scouts notice that the burns begin to fade almost immediately, crisped flesh flaking off to reveal glistening wet muscle and sinew burgeoning underneath. Then it comes closer.
A wave of terror screams across the sands as the noonday light momentarily darkens, and in the eye sockets, mouth, nostrils and ears of the zombie glowing, glistening worms writhe profanely, crawling up and down its limbs. Three Asherati are overcome, throwing down their weapons and shields and running screaming into the desert. William draws his crossbow with a gasp and looses an expertly-aimed bolt. There is an audible crunch with wet, squelching overtones as the projectile buries itself in the zombie’s forehead. Its shambling stops.
Then it stands up straight. A faint green glow emanates from its eye sockets. Blue directs her ball of flame to bombard the creature again but it sidesteps adroitly, all pretense of shambling slowness gone. Then it was coming, hurtling towards them, emaciated clawed feet churning the sand. Claws outstretch, mouth open, a tongue of roiling worms hanging a foot out of its mouth and wavering with worm strands stretching outwards in every direction. It was upon them, and in seconds two of the guards were down. One was disemboweled, middle split open. The second was on his knees, screaming and clawing at his own throat as a worm burrowed its way into his brain. Grabbing his eagle claw, the screaming guard draws the blade across his own throat, his scream fading into a gurgle and then silence as he fell to the sand, still pawing at the worm’s tail.
Blue swings up into the saddle of Al, her camel companion, and flees – the caravan must be warned of the danger. William, however, swings into his saddle and charges straight towards the combat, reaching out a hand to grasp the back of the remaining guard’s collar, hoping to save him from his fate. The collar, briefly clutched, is torn from William’s hand as the guard begins to screan, echoing in William’s ears and then being suddenly cut short as he turns to follow Blue back to the caravan, to save the others from the same fate.
The guards of the caravan and the civilians greet William with newfound respect; he had gone into the wastes and come back one of few survivors, for the good of all.
Zoheir takes the news of the loss of his guard with grim acceptance. Such is the way of the desert. He orders the caravan to swing northwards to avoid the area with the creature.
As they confer, the wind rises. It pushes and tugs against them, a grasping thing. That is not the end of its strangeness, for neither cape nor coat nor flag, nor cloth of any sort, is disturbed. Ardat feels the wind within an enclosed caravan. He calls upon his magics and stares outwards to the south-east, from whence the wind blows. Necromancy, he sees, faint but saturating the wind as it blows through wood and canvas as through the air to tug at him.
The fell wind blows stronger and Blue remembers the folk tales of the night; that the wind blows at night tugs not at the body but at the soul. Evidently some others in the caravan have heard the tales, and the civilians begin to panic.
Zoheir brooks no disorder in the ranks. At his order, the guard round up all civilians into a tight cluster where he can address them all (and the guard themselves, many of whom begin to look doubtful, to waver). He addresses them, speech riddled with blistering invectives like stars riddle the sky. His words explore the shame of cowardice, of solemn promises to take the life of any that breaks ranks, and linger almost lovingly on conjecture regarding the animal-ridden parentage required to produce such quivering, fearful faces as those he sees before him. In that moment, fear of Zoheir overcomes fear of the desert, and the people steel their resolve.
In the wake of the flaming lashes of Zoheir’s tongue, Maria salves the wounds. She moves among the people, eyes always staring into the distance but words gentle and quiet, dripping honey and promises of protection. If Zoheir was more terrifying than the desert, then he could keep it at bay.
The people calmed for the moment, Zoheir and Maria confer and as the caravan changes course. They call Blue, William, Ardat, and Moonreaver to them. It was time to earn their keep again. Ardat informs them of what he sees in the fell winds, and they send the four (with a half-dozen guards) to scout behind the caravan, in case the wind merely travels ahead of some greater danger stalking them.
One hour from the caravan, a greater danger finds them. There is darkness on the horizon, and it draws closer. A blackness the glaring desert sun cannot pierce billows towards them as though borne on the wings of demons. Some twenty feet high and at least fourty wide, rising winds in its path, a cloud of darkness races forth.
With scant few seconds to prepare, the guards fan out and the guards brace themselves. The camels with the group are guided to lie down in a semicircle towards the blackness, in hopes of creating some lee in which shelter can be found. Then, it is upon them.
Soul-numbing darkness descends and all vision is blotted out. Not merely obscured by streaming sands as howling winds obscure hearing, but a pitch blackness as though the sun had been extinguished envelopes all. The darkness sucks the warmth from the heart as the sand flays at the skin, abrading to the blood, to the bone, and through the howl of the wind Blue hears another howl – of pain.
As suddenly as it was upon them, the black wind was gone and they stood beneath the sun. A twenty-foot-wide path of black sand stretches from the south-east and to the north-west, the black cloud visible in the distance as it hurtles across the sands.
The guards and the camels, with the exception of Al, are dead – and not merely dead. The skin and flesh has been flayed from their bones, entrails smeared in dark pools and staining their bleach-white bones. With a susurrus the bones begin to rise, struggling to their feet as black sand pours from them.
Battle is joined, skeleton asherati wielding the weapons and armour that fell with them, skeleton camels rending flesh with their jagged teeth. As the heroes struck at them, flakes, chips, and chunks of the skeletons fly off and disintegrate into black sand in midair. Moonreaver is overcome with the rage of barbarians, his great sword cleaving skeletons in two, both halves disintegrating into sand in the moment of separation. Then all is still. The skeletons are returned to the dark earth, wounds are nursed.
The wind was headed in the same general direction as the caravan and the scouts must make haste, but with their mounts dead and Al not able to carry everyone, travel is slow, and the desert heat is severe, hitting William and Moonreaver especially hard as dehydration begins to set in.
An odd shimmer catches William’s eye; a coloured refraction of the light from the ground. Blue identifies it; slipsand. Tiny granules of glass, from intense heat and then breakage, that twinkle in the wastes. Any unwary enough to step foot on them sink and suffocate beneath the sands, as the glass is not nearly as densely packed as the sand it is found in.
The hazard circumvented, it is not much longer before the party comes upon where the caravan should be. They see a tholus in the distance… and smoke.
Hastening forward, the party is greeted with the sight of the caravan, or what’s left of it. Bodies litter the sand for hundreds of meters, guards and civilians, burnt-out husks of caravans… and raiders. The remaining caravans have been pulled into a defensive semi-circle in front of a narrow opening into a circular ‘bay’ of stone formed at the base of the tholus. Several are on fire, and asherati archers line the tops and stand shoulder-to-shoulder between the gaps. Facing them, a greater number of asherati in desert garb – the raiders.
Zoheir leaps from the top of a caravan and grabs a raider by the neck and lifts him clear off the ground with one arm. Zoheir’s eyes blaze with fire, fire that runs out and down his neck, sinuously spirals up his arm, and burns its way up the neck and into the mouth of the captive raider, whose body begins to glow and swell as his full-throated scream builds until
Zoheir walks unscathed out of the smoke and glassed sand, calmly shearing foes in half at the waist with twin scimitars and battle is joined, though the attackers have lost heart. The sun glare and eye-burning smoke from the fires cause William to arc a shot over the caravans and disappear, and he draws his own dual scimitars, moving into combat shoulder-to-shoulder with Moonreaver and clashing blades with the raiders, as Ardat and Blue circle to attack the enemy at the flanks. Soon, it is over.
Zoheir and Maria assemble the remaining guards and set them to extinguishing fires and retrieving what equipment is possible from the bodies, for nightfall is coming and there may not be enough guards to form the circle of light.
As the noise settles, a wailing is heard from behind the defensive lines. A crowd of civilians – the remaining civilians, barely a score of them – huddle around a wailing woman who clutches a still body to her chest, a body that shares a similar appearance with her but younger.
A crossbow bolt juts from her throat. Blood blooms from the wound and darkens upon her clothing. No nods of respect are afforded to William, no words are spoken. Only silence greets him when he walks the camp.
The night is tense, the circle of light thin, the howling, billowing black presses inwards like never before. In the morning, Maria looks wan but her voice is strong; they will not last another night out here. The tholus must be scouted for shelter. The party must go, and they must go now, and return to lead the remnants of the caravan to a safe camp. They cannot travel from this place now, the caravans damaged beyond present ability to repair and cannibalised for firewood as the enchantments protecting against heat and cold are destroyed.
In the morning, the party enters the bay of the tholus. They must secure a safe camping place by nightfall, or the dawn will see one more lost caravan gone from time and memory, forgotten in the wastes…