The sinister growl echoed around the clearing, spooking the birds from the trees. Before the echoes faded they were replaced by the sharp twang of crossbow bolts.
For a moment Trey thought it was some random, suicidal attempt of Zak fighting off the projectiles, but when he didn’t feel any pain his brain processed that the sound was too high-pitched to have come from Zak. He opened his eyes. To his surprise, all of the bolts were being carried away by brightly coloured birds. The Forukks themselves were fighting against a tide of the birds that pecked at their eyes and exposed hides.
“Calomahii!” screamed several of the birds in some kind of battlecry.
“Oh sweet. Little men are riding those birds,” called out Zak, pointing excitedly.
Zak was right. Small men about the size of a man’s index finger were riding the birds while shooting little bows at the patches of bare Forukk skin. They wore armour of leaves, shells and bone, and all had tanned skin.
One of the little men manoeuvred his bird around the Forukks and made it hover in front of the three boys. It called out to them in a voice that sounded like the thing had just breathed in a large amount of helium. “
Hey! Big people, run for your lives. We’ll take care of these oversized rats. Get out of here now!”
Taking the strange little man’s advice they turned and ran through the trees in a direction they hoped was east. The sound of battle slowly faded into the distance as they ran further from the encounter. They could barely breathe from the effort but they continued their sprint, then the sudden lack of ground in front of their feet caused them to skid to a stop.
Billy and Trey both managed to slide to a halt but Zak was still running full pelt while watching the clouds above him. He somehow managed another few feet while running on air before plummeting to the ground below. There was a dull thud.
Trey walked up to the edge and gazed out into a huge expanse of sand as far as his eyes could see. The Amion Desert, known locally as the sands of deliverance. It was a large body of sand that separated Pastrino land from that of Onlasar. Down far below, Zak was embedded in the sand. “Hey Zak, are you okay?” he called down.
“Aaww,” was Zak’s reply.
“Is that a yes or no?” asked Billy in an unconcerned voice. There was silence for a few seconds then Zak managed an answer.
“Wow. That was so fun. Hey, guys help me get back up so I can go again.”
“I’ll take that as a yes he is okay,” Billy sighed.
Trey took a closer look at their surroundings. It was quite a drop from where they were to the sand below but they could make it. Zak had already proven that much. There was also a small path down that ran along the cliff, but a large rock blocked the way. It looked easy enough to climb.
Somewhere there should have been a route known as the Traveller’s Pass, a staircase carved into the cliff which was used by traders. Most bypassed the desert by sailing the River Rike instead. Trey wasn’t sure where this pass was though, and he had the daunting feeling that the Forukks were on their trail again.
“Come on, we’ll take the path,” he told Billy, a nearby howl lending haste to his decision.
It only took a few minutes to reach the boulder. Trey looked back to see the Forukks just emerging from the trees; less in number then when they attacked in the forest. Many of them looked like they had injuries but at this range he couldn’t be sure. He was sure on one thing though, he was not about to wait and look. They both started to climb, finding plenty of gaps to hold onto. Slight tremors passed through the stone, causing the boys to halt at the top.
The Forukks were far too close for comfort. One released a blood-curdling howl that caused the rock to shake more. Then it started to rise. Trey realised too late that they were standing on a stone troll’s shoulders.
Its body cleverly mimicked the rocks of its surrounding area. Its huge arms looked able to crush anything within its grasp. Simple yellow eyes stared dumbly before it. It was clearly aged as its rocky skin was cracked and faded in certain sections. They were rare in these parts but this particular one looked at home in its surroundings and was not happy about being disturbed.
Even the Forukks stopped in near disbelief as the troll took in the situation before it. It didn’t seem to notice Trey and Billy, and even luckier, it looked to have a dislike for the Forukks. It picked up a rock and threw it like a skimming stone at the closest Forukk, taking its head off in a spray of bone and brain. The troll lurched forward, hands clenched.
“Come on, we’ve got to jump,” said Trey.
“No way. That’s the kind of thing Zak would do.”
“Well it’s either that or we just sit here on a troll while it’s attacking a pack of Forukks.”
“I’d rather do that then do something that Zak thought up. He just wouldn’t shut up about it.”
They didn’t have time to argue so Trey grabbed Billy’s arm and jumped. The wind blew through his hair wildly and his eyes watered so all he could see were blurs around him. He was starting to enjoy free fall, until he reached his destination of the ground. The instant he impacted with the earth, everything went black.
* * *
Trey awoke with a violent pain in his neck and Billy and Zak standing over him, arguing as always. Spitting out a mouthful of sand he sat up slowly and looked around. Only two things seemed odd. One was the body of a Forukk sprawled out nearby. The second was the small man standing on Zak’s shoulder.
Trey didn’t want to listen to Billy and Zak argue so he stood up and walked over to the Forukk body. Neither noticed, and considering he was directly below them, it showed their minds weren’t focused.
The body looked like it had been through a lot. Its otherworldly eyes were pecked and swollen, it had a deep claw wound across its chest, and it looked like it had been crushed by the troll. It didn’t have any sword wounds so he presumed it had been thrown off the cliff.
Looking at a bloodied up monster corpse wasn’t Trey’s idea of fun so he walked back over to his companions to inspect the small man, now jumping about on Billy’s head, much to the teen’s agitation.
Zak suddenly realised that Trey wasn’t on the floor anymore and walked over to him asking, “How did you get over there?”
“I walked,” Trey replied simply.
“Well even I could have guessed that, it’s just that you landed head first. I’m surprised you didn’t break your neck.”
“I’m just lucky I guess,” Trey muttered as he soothed his aching neck. He certainly didn’t feel lucky. “Who’s that little man trying to light a campfire on Billy’s head?”
The creature in question was a humanoid about the size of a mouse with plain brown hair, red tinged eyes and slightly pointed ears. His clothes were a mixture of furs and sewn foliage of subtle browns and greens. There was a slight green tinge to his tanned skin.
“He’s trying to do what!” shouted the unsuspecting Billy. “I’ll kill you, you little…”
Billy swatted wildly at his head, missing the miniature man at every opportunity. He merely dodged the first few attacks, jumped onto Billy’s hand, slid down his shirt then, made a leap of faith, somehow gliding towards Zak. Upon closer inspection, Trey noted that he had small webbed sections on his clothes so he could glide. He landed on Zak’s leg and scrambled up onto his shoulder. Billy raised his fists threateningly to the man and stomped towards him.
The little man pulled a sharpened sword from its scabbard and pointed it at Billy. In a high-pitched voice he shouted “I’ll teach you to pick a fight with a Yuxova captain. Bo-bo, attack!”
Out of the sky dived a small blue bird wearing makeshift armour made of nutshells. It swooped down and started to peck at Billy’s face. Unable to swat the bird away he resorted to running around in a circle screaming until the Yuxova called it off.
After everyone had settled down and Bo-bo the bird was happily seated on Billy’s head, Trey decided to get some details on their small guest. “So, little man, who are you?”
The Yuxova suddenly stood up straight and pushed his chest forwards proudly. “I am Captain Puxalotu Wutoxa. I am the lowest Captain of the Forest Guardians.”
“Why did you come to the desert with us, Pux?” Trey asked.
“My name is Puxalotu, long haired human child.”
“Well what’s wrong with Pux?”
“It’s not my name.”
“It’s close enough.”
Puxalotu ignored Trey and answered his other question. “As for why I’m here with you, I am tasked with protecting the forest. Our Lord Prophet remembers stories of the last time those beasts wandered this land. The forests burned, the trees were felled and our men were brutally murdered. I know from the Shadow Walkers that your city, Uraxi, or Pastrino as it’s called in your tongue, has been destroyed. Our forest will be next. You seem to be on a mission against them so I will aid you.”
“We’re not on a mission against them. We’re just trying to get to safety,” Billy blurted out.
“The Lord Prophet said that you were on a quest so you are on a quest.”
“What ever you say Puxy,” Billy replied.
“I said my name is Puxalotu!”
“So? It’s too long. If we need your help quickly we don’t want to be shouting Puxalotu,” argued Billy stubbornly.
“Okay. I’ll make you a deal. You can call me Pux if I can call you shortened versions of your names too.”
“Deal,” chorused Zak and Trey the second the Yuxova soldier had finished speaking.
“Wait a second. That’s not fair. You aren’t calling me Bill,” Billy protested. “Plus those two don’t have shortened versions.”
“Tough, BILL,” goaded Zak, enjoying every second of Billy’s agitation.
“Damn you all,” Billy muttered angrily.
“So we’re agreed,” interrupted Trey to avoid another argument.
“We can call our little friend here Pux on the condition he can call us shortened versions of our names.”
“In other words he calls me Bill,” grunted Billy.
“Exactly,” added Zak happily.
They walked on for a while following Pux’s advice on which was the best path east, Billy and Zak arguing the whole time. Pux was setting up a small tent on Billy’s head and Trey continued reading ‘The Arts of Nimula’ with a running translation from Zak again. Questions about the Yuxova were occasionally asked of Pux which he gladly answered.
The further they walked, the more the heat increased, sapping at their strength and drenching them in sweat. Only Pux had any water while nobody wore suitable clothing to shield against the scorching sun. Conversation died as saliva evaporated from their mouths.
After a while, Zak broke the silence. “This beach sucks. No sea, no food, and no scantily clad women.”
“What beach?” Trey asked, feeling confused.
“This beach,” Zak said as he motioned the desert surrounding them.
“This. Is. A. Desert,” stated Billy very slowly like he was addressing a small child.
“Shut up BILL,” taunted Zak. “There’s lots of sand so it’s a beach.”
“Look, firstly you can get rock beaches that have no sand, secondly there’s no sea,” argued Billy.
“Fine, it’s a sealess sand beach,” reasoned the other teen.
“That makes no sense,” scoffed Billy.
“Neither does the sign on that ship’s flag,” shrugged Zak.
“What?” said both Trey and Billy in surprise.
They looked towards where Zak was pointing, and sure enough there was a ship. It was actually sailing through the sand. It had a complex wooden structure with giant sails that billowed wildly in the wind, and just like Zak said, it had a flag with some strange symbols. The wood was old and sun bleached while the design of the hull seemed to be a mesh of several styles of seafaring ships. Snarling fangs had been carved into the bow of vessel like the maw of a giant shark.
“I wonder what those symbols mean,” wondered Billy aloud.
Pux squinted up at the cluster of strange shapes. “Hmm. I would say it’s a desert tribe inscription, Flesh Eroders, I believe. It roughly translates to “You can run, but you’ll just die tired,” he explained nonchalantly.
“They sound nice. Let’s hitch a ride,” Zak said with a grin.
“Are you crazy?” roared Billy. “They sound like they’ll kill us in the most painful way imaginable then use whatever remains of us on spare parts for the ship.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” observed Zak excitedly. “They’re about to run us over.”
The ship suddenly increased its speed and made a quick turn until it was pointed directly at the group. Sand flew around it in vast clouds that obscured the cantankerous vessel in a murky veil. Trey could just make out massive wheels under the colossal structure.
“Sprite damn it!” shouted Billy as he leapt from in front of the ship. Trey did the same. Zak just stood there waving at it.
Several spikes were mounted onto the front of the ship at an angle to avoid snapping on dunes, but instead of Zak being impaled on them, he just lifted his foot and stepped up onto the first of the fearsome metal points and began to climb with ease up to the ship’s deck.
As for Billy and Trey, after narrowly avoiding being crushed or impaled by diving to the side, they were caught in huge nets that hung from the ship’s sides like drooped wings. After a futile attempt to untangle themselves, the nets were lifted up onto the deck. Zak was already there, with five swords aimed around his body. Billy and Trey were welcomed similarly after the nets were removed from around them. Pux was nowhere to be seen.
All of the men surrounding them had bald heads and many had disfiguring scars. They all had tattoos depicting death, carnage or general articles of fear like snakes or giant spiders. More than one of them had sharpened their teeth into vicious fangs. They wore a tough, leather like material as clothing, probably from some desert predator, that covered vital areas of the body but left large amounts of tanned skin bare. Each held in his hand a weapon ranging from swords, spears, axes or anything that was heavy and dealt a devastating blow. The men had huge muscles to compensate for the heavy weapons.
Women were also mingled in with the men. They had long, wild hair unlike their male counterparts. They carried weapons too.
The three boys were tied up with thick rope and shoved around as the tribe’s people moved them about, seemingly trying to decide the best course of action. They spoke in a strange, harsh tongue that even Billy, who actually paid attention in language class, couldn’t fully decipher. He caught the odd word or two but not enough to make much sense. Trey was completely at a loss. He regretted ignoring the lessons on desert tribes and their languages now.
A very tall man, dressed like the rest but with the addition of a skull helmet, skull shoulder pads and skull shin pads, walked up to the teens. He must have been high up in their ranks. He also seemed to be able to speak the same language as the boys, although his accent created a harshness to even the softest of words.
“Looks like we’ll be eating well tonight,” he boomed.
The other members of the tribes seemed to understand it as well. They all cheered as Billy, Trey and Zak were led to an under deck cell.
“Nice,” stated Billy, sarcasm dripping from the word.