Chapter 6 Scene 2

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 22 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

The last of Bernard’s strength failed all at once. His eyes lost focus, and Simon saw whites briefly before the exhausted air mage’s eyelids slammed closed. He went limp, his empty hands collapsing to his sides as his head slowly toppled backward. Simon was ready and responded before Bernard hit the sand. “Gunther, seal the door!” The young air mage’s eyes closed tightly as he scrambled to cut off the deadly flow of air power. Simon could only hope the boy had responded quickly enough.

With a flick of his wrist he redirected his own power directly into the dune where they sat, and things began to happen very quickly. Already partially energized by his earlier net, the earth beneath him now positively hummed with power. A twist of Simon’s right palm brought a cushioning tentacle of sand up to catch the collapsing common mage and lowered him gently to the ground.

Above them, the storm was collapsing in on itself, much as Bernard had. The previously suspended sand, rock, and debris was falling, soon to smother the three mages under its crushing weight if Simon couldn’t stop it. He extended his left index finger, palm upward and drew a ring in the air. A flowing wall of sand sped around them to form a continuous circle a hand span thick. He made a cupping motion with both hands before sweeping his arms in an arc up over his head. All around them the sand climbed skyward, racing the falling debris, until it slammed shut, swallowing the three huddled figures in a lightless tomb.

Sand, silt, and heavy debris rained down in earnest, falling with concussive booms and sucking gulps as pockets of trapped air escaped to form short-lived sink holes. The ever changing face of the desert shifted as old dune crests were buried and the hollows between dunes filled in. The sand dome Simon had raised quickly disappeared from view.

Shards of broken crystal settled in a fine, foot cutting dust. Clumps of uprooted spiny bush fell and tumbled into the low points of the surrounding dunes, there to sprout anew with the first signs of rain. Branches and limbs torn from larger bushes fell clattering to the sand. The bodies of many small lizards and rodents who had not been quick or strong enough to escape the wind’s greedy fingers also fell to earth. Some were merely stunned and disoriented by their tumultuous flight. Most were dead.

Near the spot where the three mages had been buried, a sickening crunch announced the arrival of a fearsome looking lizard, nearly the length of a full grown man. It had six double jointed legs equipped with cruel spade-like claws, equally suited for rending flesh or tunneling through loose sand. Its tail was forked and mounted with hard serrated edges at both tips, useful for stunning larger prey or expeditiously dispatching anything foolish enough to attack. Its head was an ugly affair, close to the body, angular, horned, and ruggedly armored with bonelike scales. It was similarly armored all the way to the tips of its forked tail, the scales mottled in shades of muted dun and inky black. In the semi-darkness of dusk and dawn, it would be nearly invisible.

The beast had been horribly mangled by the storm. Three of its legs lay twisted at unnatural angles. Bony scales had been torn away in several places, leaving raw patches that oozed a heavy green ichor. It lay on its side, exposing a rarely seen underbelly armored nearly as heavily as its back. There was a ragged indentation a hand span across in the rib cage, where the beast must have been hit by a heavy stone during the storm. Nothing could have survived such a beating, and the beast lay still after its fall except for the occasional twitch. After the last of the storm wreckage fell to earth, creaks, pops and slides continued to echo across the dunes as the reformed desert settled back into its weary slumber. Then even the settling subsided and silence reclaimed the desert floor.

Six lean figures strode across the debris field, lead by Tor in his loose fitting desert robes. Stephen Silver-eye and the others walked five abreast behind him with military precision, their robes and gear strapped close to their bodies. They slowed as they approached the centre, and then came to a stop near the mangled lizard, looking around warily.

Stephen looked to the prophet. “Were they destroyed then?”

“Perhaps. But I think not. Three stay here with me. Two go scout for salvage.”

“Drez, Jorgen, sweep!” The outermost members of the shadow line peeled off to search and categorize everything the storm had dropped. They moved quickly but systematically, dividing the area into a grid and memorizing its contents in near silence. Stephen and the two women who flanked him remained in position at Tor’s back.

“How long will we wait?”

Tor cocked his head to one side momentarily. Then he narrowed his eyes at a small circle of sand that was clear of storm debris. “Not long.”

Within moments, a low rumble echoed across the desert and the circle of sand began to shift. It boiled and swirled, pushing storm debris aside as the circle widened. Sand slid away from a domed shape rising to the surface like a giant soap bubble. Soon its summit stood well over Tor’s head. Sand continued to sheet down from the peak, yet never revealed a structure beneath it. At last a hole formed in the top of the dome as the sand thinned. The last of the sand slid down to settle in an unbroken ring which slumped, then flowed radially outward, returning to the desert floor and leaving no trace of the sand dome’s passage.

Simon, Gunther, and Bernard stood in the centre of the unnaturally smooth circle of sand. Bernard was unsteady on his feet, but at least he had recovered enough strength to stand while under Simon’s sheltering dome. Even Gunther was a bit glassy eyed.

Their spectacular rise from the bowels of the desert sands unharmed had been calculated to impress. Though their observers showed no overt response, Simon noted that none had dared to step across the circle toward the three weary mages.

“Greetings Doormakers. I am Brother Tor, a shaman of the Tribe of Prophets. Tell me, do you intend to claim the desert’s bounty?” He tilted his head at an angle as he awaited their answer. The three warriors at his back tensed at the question and Simon felt the combined weight of their scrutiny.

“I’m afraid you have us at a disadvantage, Brother Tor. I am Magus Simon, representative of the High Council of Doormaker Citadel. We do not know your customs as well as we might like to. Could you explain?”

Tor nodded and flashed a smile that held no warmth. He used his hands expressively as he spoke now. “Among the people of the sands, the great sandstorm is revered. She rises up from the dunes into the sky.” Tor reached up to touch the sky with one triumphant hand.

“She takes whatever she can claim, and carries it leagues across the sands until she tires and returns to her bed.” He lowered his hand and swept it across his waist, palm downward, fist closed.

“When she subsides, she surrenders her spoils, but only to those worthy enough to follow her dance.” He swept his hand back across his waist, this time with an open palm face upward.

“Whoever reaches her heart can claim the bounty of the desert, until she rises from her sandy bed to dance again.”

Tor nodded toward the smooth circle of sand, raising his fist toward his chest. “You stand in the heart of the storm.” His hand swept out again, indicating the devastation that surrounded them. “Do you intend to claim the desert’s bounty?”

Simon’s eyes narrowed. This was a clever trap. If he answered yes, the Doormakers would be faulted for stealing the resources the tribespeople relied upon. They might even be challenged and forced to fight Tor’s followers, which would gain them nothing. If he said no, the Doormakers would be accused of disrespecting the customs that made life possible in the Great Desert. Simon must offer a third alternative.

“I’m afraid you misunderstand our intentions. We did not seek the heart of the storm as you and your hunters did. We were not ‘worthy enough to follow her dance’ as you put it.”

Tor was evidently ready for such a response. He crossed his arms over his chest. “If you did not chase the storm, then how have you come to be at her heart so quickly?”

“We have recently arrived at Edgeways, and were meditating in the desert when the storm arrived. Perhaps it was through our own carelessness, but the storm blocked our return to the outpost. We were forced to shelter here until the storm subsided.” Simon felt it would have been dangerous to lie to the Prophet for some reason. But given the tribe’s reverence of sandstorms, admitting their part in the storm’s origin might get the Doormakers branded as heretics or worse. A lie of omission seemed the safest course.

“I hope we have not offended. You and your hunters have clearly tracked the storm’s dance and found her heart. The bounty of the desert is yours to claim.”

Tor’s eyes tightened and a wry smile touched his lips fleetingly. Simon had neatly evaded his trap. “Tell me Magus Simon. It has been many seasonturns since your order have entered the Great Desert in such numbers. If not the heart of the storm, what is it you seek?”

Simon did not miss the subtle emphasis in the phrase such numbers. Simon knew a handful of mages had traveled through the desert in the last ‘turn. Some had traveled with caravans and some with wagon trains, but groups accompanied by more than a single mage were rare. The aptitude test team had nearly as many mages as guildsmen, and evidently the Tribe of Prophets had been keeping track. He needed to disarm their fear that the Triads had been reborn, and do it quickly.

“I and my companions, Magus Bernard and Magus Gunther, accompany a wagon train of guild aptitude testers on their way to Guardian Village. Edgeways is our first stop since leaving from the Citadel.” Simon stopped there, providing a neat hook for Tor to question. The prophet took it.

“What are these guild aptitude testers you speak of?” Tor’s curiosity had superseded his caution, as Simon had hoped it might.

“Ahh yes. Let me explain. Each of our trade guilds in the Fertile Plains runs a training school for apprentices. The larger guilds actually have schools in multiple cities. Every seasonturn, we administer aptitude tests throughout the Fertile Plains to help potential students choose the guild school that will suit them best.”

Tor raised his eyebrows quizzically. “That does not explain your presence here in the Great Desert.”

“The guild schools are open to anyone with the aptitude, but until now it has been most challenging for prospective apprentices from beyond our borders to come to a testing centre for screening. This seasonturn we’ve decided to bring the tests to them instead.”

Tor hesitated, his ear cocked to one side as if listening. He nodded briefly to himself before continuing. “I see. Your guilds seek apprentices. What then does your Doormaker Council seek?”

Simon hesitated. The question was uncomfortably close to the one he and Bernard had discussed at the beginning of their journey. “The same. The Council supervises administration of a single test which determines aptitude for all of our guilds. That includes the Farmers Guild, Crafters Guild, Healers Guild, Merchants Guild, Soldiers Guild, and of course the Mage Academy.” Simon paused, discreetly examining the man standing behind Tor. Had the slightest gleam appeared in the tall warrior’s eyes when Simon mentioned the Academy? Or had his attention been drawn to something else? And where were the other two tribespeople Simon had sensed briefly before the storm collapsed?

An ominous hiss interrupted their conversation. The storm tossed lizard, after returning to consciousness despite its horrifying injuries, had launched itself toward Tor. Even with only half of its limbs working it still scrambled across the sand with startling speed.

Simon did not hesitate, even though he was exhausted from the storm. With a thought he raised a sheltering wall of sand between the Prophet and the beast.

But as quick as he was, Tor’s warriors were faster. “Protect the Prophet,” the tall tribesman barked as he sprinted toward the charging lizard. He drew a small crystal shield and a heavy stone mallet as he moved. The two women moved with military precision, their crystal tipped lances glinting as they sped along at his side.

As he neared the speeding beast, which had not deviated from its path toward the stationary Prophet, the women fanned out to his right and left. The man began to rub the stone mallet on the edge of the shield. A discordant ringing sound cut through the desert air, slowly rising in pitch as the warrior varied the stroke. The sound must have angered the lizard, because it slowed its headlong rush and swiveled its head toward the source of the noise. Then the man swung the mallet against the face of the shield in three sharp raps. With each one a peeling clash rang out, escalating in intensity as he lifted the shield up above his head to sparkle blindingly in the desert sun.

On the last strike the lizard reared back its head with a defiant scream of its own. Then it spit a foul gout of green ichor toward the glinting shield.

The tall tribesman ducked low, easily evading the projectile. In a mirrored motion as well choreographed as a dance the two women stepped up under the rearing lizard from both sides and thrust their twin lances into its open jaws. With brutal elegance, they twisted their lances, shearing off the crystal tips where they were embedded while rolling smoothly across the sand and out of reach. As the beast’s jaws snapped shut, a keening whine rose into the air and both crystals exploded with a blinding flash visible even through the lizard’s bony skull.

As they came to their feet they were already mounting new crystal shards on their weapons and circling for another run. It was unnecessary. The beast tottered a few short steps before collapsing to the sand, its head a misshapen mass with an unhinged jaw dangling at its throat.

The entire battle lasted a few moments and ended before the ringing from the crystal shield died away. With a start, Simon realized that the two missing tribesman had joined the fray. They had appeared silently behind the lizard just out of reach of the cruel looking tail. They had been whirling crystal loaded slings which they now carefully unloaded and stowed away. Now the five of them stood around the fallen beast, seemingly unphased by the sudden attack, but ready to react instantly if the lizard rose again.

Tor stood unflinching. He had never even bothered to look toward the brief but intense battle. Instead, he glanced at the impenetrable wall of sand, and then nodded his head briefly to Simon.

“I appreciate the concern Magus Simon. But as you can see, I was never in any real danger.”

Simon let the wall slump back to the sand, smoothing out the surface with a thought. “I can see that Brother Tor. The Great Desert can clearly be dangerous for the unwary. Do all Prophets travel with such skilled protectors?”

Tor looked intently at the three mages before responding. “No. Stephen Silver-eye and his tribespeople are … unique.” Simon suspected there was more, much more that the Prophet had left out. The warriors had made those crystals explode somehow, with devastating results. What else were they capable of?

But Tor clearly intended to leave such questions unanswered. “Your guilds who seek apprentices may search to north and west. The Council claims to seek the same, yet will find more … and less.”

The cryptic verse had an ominous ring. “You speak in riddles Brother Tor. We do not understand.”

“Each shall see in their own time, Magus Simon, and can not be shown before.” He turned away from the mages and walked toward the Stephen Silver-eye and his warriors.

“Brother Tor?”

“Good hunting, Doormakers. If you would screen the children of the sands, you must be at the Gathering of Ten Fallen Stones in six days time. Come Stephen; we have much to do.”

The tribespeople would say no more to the three mages. They went to work stripping the debris field of anything they could carry. By the time the sun set, they would be on their way, the once littered storm field picked clean.

Simon, Bernard, and Gunther trudged wearily back to the waystation in Edgeways to rest and consider what they had learned.

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