Two riders crossed the Desert of Dry Tears, whipping their mounts with a fierce urgency. The taller of the two was a Tythri woman with hard hands and dusky skin, called the approaching storm Ghul’akkar, the Bone Scourge. The towering clouds behind and webs of lightning spreading like claws overhead frayed her Westlander companion’s nerves.
Hospitality obliged her to see to the Westlander’s protection, but Tythri were not ones to dip bitter words in honey. She told him, “Ride hard, foreigner. If it catches us, the storm will bear us skyward to strip off our flesh and drop our polished bones.” She indicated a stretch of white patches speckling the night-black sand to the dune horizon ahead. “My people call it Ghul’akkar’s Road. Your destination lies at its end.”
Colonel Cosmorris twisted the reins until they bit into his wrist. His sand lizard mount’s unfamiliar gait was a challenge to his horsemanship, not helped by the service pistol gripped tight in his other hand. “You’re certain of the direction, Lady Nephra?”
Nephra snorted. This Westlander! Pale and thin as salted soup, he was, with nothing of the desert baked into his papery skin.
“Only Greatmothers and Widow Aunts are ladies, Westlander. I’m just a guide, but I’ll lead you well enough. My people’s bones have paved this road for a thousand lifetimes.”
It was a slight exaggeration. The Tythri had served under the desert’s unforgiving skies for at least that long. Nephra would have done the same, if the elders hadn’t sent her abroad to study. Four years at the Conservatorio Esoterica in Penchant, studying Dry Climate Alchemy and Hex Engineering, broadened her worldliness and capacity to hold hard liquor, but withered her skills as a desert guide.
“It’s around here somewhere.”
“We’re going to die out in this hellish desert!” Cosmorris muttered, as flurries of sand began to whip about them.
“I should never have accepted this wretched assignment!”
“Speaking of which, you were vague with the elders back in Ul-Tyth. What’s your business with the Unmapped Temple, Westlander?”
“It is a site of great antiquity and archaeological significance,” he declared, swelling proudly despite the skin-stripping wind and heat. “I intend to catalogue its relics and preserve them for posterity.”
Nephra frowned. “I don’t suggest that. This desert gets fiercely cold at night. It’s also crawling with manticores, obsidioids and hostile Salamandrian tribesmen. You won’t last a day on your own.”
Cosmorris waved her warning off with his revolver. “On my own? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll put some of the labourers on guard duty to ward off wild animals and whatnot.”
Nephra looked from one horizon to the next. Other than the gigantic storm bearing down, they were alone in the desert. “What labourers?”
Cosmorris rolled his eyes. “Your people, of course. Once we locate the temple, I’ll send a radio signal to Captain Pillwilmott to round up a suitable workforce to help with the fetching and lifting. A couple of hundred ought to do it.”
“Oh, I see.” Nephra eyed a narrow canyon between two sand-worn rock formations, about a mile off to their left. “Aha, that’s the way we need to go. Follow me!”
“I though you said the Temple was at the end of the road?”
Nephra shrugged. “Just a figure of speech. This is a short cut.”
Cosmorris thumbed the chambers to ensure his pistol was loaded and clear of desert grit, but he followed.
The high walls of the canyon provided temporary relief from both the sun as well as the rising storm winds. They dismounted, leaving their panting lizards to flop on the canyon’s cool sandy floor. Nephra pointed into the gloom. “At the far end is a door to the main chamber. We must offer prayers to propitiate Kur’Aphua, the temple spirit. She doesn’t always welcome interruptions.”
Cosmorris’ eyes narrowed. “You know these rites?”
Nephra smiled like a sunbeam. “Intimately.”
“If this is a trick, I’ll shoot you.”
“I think we understand each other.”
She stood before the stone door and intoned words of appeasement to Kur’Aphua. The door swung silently open.
“It wouldn’t be a very useful temple if it were hard to enter, would it? Come on before the storm catches up.”
She conjured a simple hand-flame, which illuminated the chamber. Its light flickered across two walls of gold-lined inscriptions. Beyond the flame’s borders lay more walls with embedded sarcophagi, scorpion statues and stone carvings, all adorned with more gold.
Cosmorris’ jaw dropped at the sight. “What treasures! This will make my career!”
“Is that so? Well, congratulations, I daresay.”
Cosmorris twitched his pistol suspiciously at Nephra. “What did you say?”
“That was me,” said a short Tythri woman with long braids, appearing from nowhere.
“Greatmother Kur’Aphua!” smiled Nephra, bowing warmly. “Auntie, I’ve missed you. May I present this Westlander, who wants to take your temple away for safekeeping across the sea.”
“Does he? That seems unnecessary. My temple’s perfectly safe right here.”
Cosmorris pointed his pistol at the spectral woman. “I claim these primitive trappings and burial offerings in the name of the Westlish Empire. Surrender them immediately.”
Ignoring the gun, Kur’Aphua turned to her descendant. “Nephra, did you bring him through the servant’s entrance?”
“Did you explain the curses that bind him and his followers in perpetual service to the temple?”
“Slipped my mind, Auntie.” Nephra pointed at Cosmorris’ shoulder satchel. “By the way he’s got a talking gadget called a radio that’ll bring his followers straight to you.”
Kur’Aphua clapped appreciatively. “That’s more convenient than turning into a jackal to hunt them down and drag them back. Go ahead, Westlander.”
Sputtering angrily, unable to resist the curse’s power, Cosmorris dropped his pistol and cranked the handle on his radio, “Come in, Captain Pillwillmott…”
Kur’Aphua turned to Nephra. “Thank you for the offering, dear one. It’s become quite dusty while you were away. But next visit, do you think you could appease me with some honey cakes? I love those.”
My household’s been bereft of phone and internet connections for a week, thanks to a lightning storm with poor timing and no sense of personal space. Hopefully it will have been restored by the time you read this, but the service centre has taught me a valuable lesson about not holding my breath. Anyway, if you happen to be waiting on a reply from me for something, I apologise and beg your indulgence for a couple more days. I will get to you soon, I hope.