ANTISUN GREY Presents | A Brian Franklin Story
1Khamsin

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star

Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;

Brightening the half-veiled face of heaven afar:

So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,

Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shred,

Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

~ John Keats ‘To Hope’

Light needled through the clouds. Thin fingers pinching the bone-white sand, sweeping the murk and the cool away. Zifa raised his arm and shielded his eyes from the glare. Prepared for the onslaught of heat. Windswept sand gnawed at his face, bit its way through to his elbows, fingers and toes. Sweat dried on his skin in air drier than the sand. He stepped back under the haven of his shelter. The palm and fingers of the granite hand now above him protected him from the worst of the elements. Ever it reached skywards, grasping for the home of the gods.

Sighing, he stooped and once again examined his small collection of treasures as they rested in orderly piles near the great hand’s base. He fingered through them. Pieces of gold and silver, odd artefacts, small petrified bones. They were all useless save for the cash but he liked to have them with him. They reminded him of battles fought, of women of unspeakable beauty and craftiness, of monsters horrible and majestic. They reminded him of the reason he was here.

He looked up but there was nothing on the horizon. Only empty, barren hills of sand and rock and the half-imagined apparitions of men that seemed to trail him. The Dust, his people called it. The material of creation all gathered in one gods-forsaken place. Ground bones. He thought. All this, a massive ocean of old bones. Bleaching, drying, ground to dust over the centuries. Such were his people’s beliefs.

Breathing deep he took one of the artefacts into his hands. The egg-shaped item rolled in his palm, and the eye looked at him beneath a cover of glass.

“Strange little thing,” he said. “An eye in the desert.”

A gentle breeze swept through his little haven, sending sand into his face before he could wrap his cloak about it. The worn cloak smelled of sweat and disappointment but something else triggered memories of green cane-fields, rivers glittering beneath a hot sun, and cool sea breezes. He took another deep breath but the smells and memories had already faded.

A shadow darted across the Dust.

Zifa’s eye whipped towards it and he beheld her again. She swept across the sands, heading for the large mesa that dominated the landscape to the east. Crumbling around it were buildings older than his people’s oldest history. Wide boulevards of sinking marble. Fallen statues of men and beasts long vanished.

“There you are,” he said.

Deftly he packed his possessions, gathering them in his small backpack. After taking a quick draught from the water-skin, he was darting down the hillock. His feet hardly made impressions on the sand but it looked as though his prey left none at all. She floated over the dunes and spits of rock almost like a figure made of sand, borne aloft by the breeze. In a matter of minutes she had neared the mesa, was already beginning to enter into the pool of shadow lapping at its feet.

He was gaining ground. Now amongst the old city, through the ruined arches and down twisting avenues opening into doorways spilling sand and history. Mere metres between them. So close. His chest growing ever tighter. His hands beginning to itch, to inch towards the sword on his hip.

His feet crunched a bleached ribcage. The noise cracked the silence, broke his focus. With a gulp of air he flung himself behind a boulder.

He imagined seeing her stopping and spinning around, her eyes sweeping the entire landscape behind her. Keen eyes, those. Sharp ears. Both linked to a clever mind. With one hand against his chest and the other on the hilt of his sword he waited. Tried to settle his nerves. He crept to the other side of the rock, glanced towards where he’d seen her last.

She’d almost made it to the mesa and to the narrow doorway etched in its belly. Standing, he watched her disappear within. Swallowed. Forever lost.

Zifa walked the rest of the way and stopped before the doorway.

“Nothing good happens in darkness,” he muttered, trying to perceive something within the gloom. Beyond the entrance a hallway ran directly away from him, its walls perfectly cut. The doorway itself was lined with pictograms: people and machines and things in-between, names of once-empires and once-emperors. Their only remnants grinding away beneath the elements.

The wind was growing stronger. Large clouds billowed in the west. Distant thunder. Arcs of purple lightning. His clothes whipped about him. How quickly the weather changed in the Dust. A storm was coming, that much was clear, but there was something else as well. Some energy. Some feeling that made him sick. He couldn’t place it but it was familiar to him. It always permeated these old places.

“Onwards then,” he said to himself.

He would meet this woman in the dark places beneath the sands.

~ * ~

“So the bastard isn’t here!” Mahmoud spat into the bushes beside the streetlamp. “The fucker!”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” Retta said, watching the veins bulge about his brother’s throat and forehead.

“The fool!” Mahmoud grunted. “He had better not be dead, or else I’ll kill him! The bastard!”

Retta studied Mahmoud darkly then glanced up at the sky. Evening was quickly approaching. Few people passed them on this road, now, not that many more would have these days. Tichla was a small town, the last outpost before the great Pale Desert. Once it housed an Imperial garrison and a population in the thousands. Old public buildings had been teeming with functionaries, and the Temple of the Pale God dominated the main square, its minarets and domes inlaid with intricate mosaics. But the threats had faded, the Desert crept ever further east and the people streamed west. The Temple remained mostly the same, though void of its congregation. Buildings of bleached stone cramping the road, still warm after the day’s heat but feeling so cold, so strangely alone.

“You know what I think?” Mahmoud started, “I think he’s gone on without us!”

“Ridiculous. We have the map.”

“Think, Retta! He was born out here. Maybe he doesn’t need a map. Maybe he was feeding us that shit so we’d foot the bill!”

Retta scratched new stubble about his chin. They’d been through much together; him, Mahmoud and Zifa. Five good years as Imperial mercenaries. Two more as adventurers and treasure hunters. It was hard to believe he would cut them out of this, potentially their biggest and most dangerous expedition yet. And going completely alone? Into the Desert? Unthinkable.

“Might be he’s dead,” Retta said.

“Ha! Someone kill Zifa? Now that’s ridiculous!”

“It’s more likely than him running off into the Pale with just his clothes on his back.”

“You think so? You think you really know that bastard?”

Who could really know someone else? Half the time people hardly even knew themselves. Retta sighed and fetched a cigar from his pants pocket. Lighting it, he sucked the richly flavoured smoke. A gentle breeze stirred in the west, sprinkling him with sand. The sky was plunging deeper into night. His nose twitched.

“Come on, man,” he said. “Let’s find somewhere proper to stay for the night. Something’s not right.”

“No shit, genius,” Mahmoud snorted.

“Something’s on the air. Strange energy… like smoke.”

“You’re smoking a fucking cigar!”

“Yes, that was an unfortunate analogy, let’s put it behind us. Let me rephrase. Put my thoughts into language you can fathom. Now, there’s some weird shit blowing out of the Desert. Nasty, fucking energy that’s making me uneasy.”

“That’s so very much clearer.”

Retta gazed skywards once again. Upon the ever darkening tapestry of ink tiny freckles of stars were appearing. The moon in the east a deep yellow. Mingled voices filled his ears. The air felt cold and arid, smelling of stone and earth and his body odour. Yet there was that something else. He couldn’t describe it even to himself.

Three sharp gusts drove through the street, whipping their clothes. He squinted in it.

“There’s a storm coming, Mahmoud.”

A frown like a cracked line was carved into the bigger man’s face as he followed Retta’s eyes. “Aye. A real hell of a storm.”

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