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The sand-boat rumbled across the desert, its wooden planks shaking as crimson sand buffeted against it. The passengers rattled aboard the small vessel, clinging on to whatever was in reach. Straining under the weight, the sails threatened to tear as the wind picked up. Speed is necessary when braving the Red Desert. Shiselis, the Usundi sand-boats, are always pushed to their limits. Those that couldn't handle the strain littered the few safe routes. Their wrecks lay as a grim reminder of the restraint needed for the dangerous profession. The coin the Hegemony was offering for the pack justified the risks. But only just.
“You’d think the wind would’a buried those by now,” the only human aboard half shouted in Mundane. His sunburnt skin stuck out from the usual sort to work for the Hegemony.
Outlanders were considered pariah until Emperor Remus’s most recent reforms. The forked emblem on his tunic showed his loyalty, but his accent gave him away: Su’Aur, an ex-slave to the Auric’s broodlords. He continued, “Thought you birds kept these paths clean.”
“They’re fresh,” the shiseli pilot, known as an Amshili, dryly replied, “The winds bury them within one of your months.” She hoped this would silence the human. He had questioned her every move since they left dock in Sunbleak. The human clearly resented working with a Featherfolk. It was eating at her, and she wanted nothing more than to shove him overboard rather than deal with the next hour of travel.
“I thought you Amshilis were experts at your job,” he said dismissively.
“I am,” the Amshili responded, almost cutting him off. She pointed at a wreck, “They weren’t”.
The human shook his head through the shiseli’s vibrations, “That doesn’t give me much confidence, ya know.”
“I don’t care,” the Amshili sighed. That human was lucky the Hegemony wanted him alive, otherwise he’d have been monster bait by now. It wouldn’t be too unreasonable to have lost a passenger, especially with the creatures’ increased activity. But, her contract demanded he be kept alive. The fool somehow bonded with a piece of Eldertech that needed to see his eyes to operate. How that worked never sat in her mind. Eldertech was best left to whatever mysteries the Archivists did to understand them.
She never would have taken this contract, were it not for that humming Eldertech cylinder the size of a virse. Its noise was soothing and made her think of her mother’s roost back in Sunbleak. However, the two obsidian eyes inlaid on the side were terrifying. Those pools of shadow were what the human needed to stare at to make his contraption work - supposedly he could draw water out of the air with it. How he found any water, with or without Eldertech, in the sun scorched desert was a miracle in its own right. No wonder the Hegemony wanted it so badly.
The ship’s rumblings stopped as they entered loose sand. The human sighed with relief. “Finally,” he yawned, “I was afraid I’d lose my breakfast if I had to endure another hour of that.”
“Don’t get too comfortable,” the Amshili chided him.
The human’s smirk faded. He might have been a proud fool, but he understood the danger of this journey. The Red Desert was only passable on a shiseli. Shiselis still had difficulty crossing because of what made this sand smell of copper.
“There've been a lot of sightings around here,” the Amshili said, “Probably grown from the survivors of those wrecks we passed earlier.”
All traces of bravery and smugness drained from the human’s face. He stammered, “D-do you think we’re going to see any?”
The strigoi were creatures out of a madman’s nightmare. They flew through the skies and hunted any who dared to pass through these lands. If they caught you, they would rip you to shreds and leave their eggs in what remained of your body. The worst part was their young would take traits from the bodies of whatever they were laid in. Each of these creatures looked like the contorted torso and head of that poor soul who they grew in, only with wings made of skin that stretched almost as wide as a shiseli where their arms should be, and hooked talons where their legs would have been.
The Amshili locked the steering levers in place and carefully moved to the rusty metal tubes secured to the side of the shiseli. She removed two with each of her taloned hands and thrust them at the human. He stared back at her beaked face with confusion.
“Net throwers,” she explained, “Strigoi hate the dark. Wrapping them up in one of those should keep them away long enough to get away.”
“What if I miss?” the human asked.
“I gave you two.”
“What if there's more than two? Or what if I miss again?”
“Then you better hope that Sola wants you back in Abresia as much as the Hegemony does.”
The human gulped. The Amshili took her place at the controls again, scanning for any telling black spots in the sea of dunes. It wasn’t long before she spotted one.
As the shiseli leapt over a dune, the human’s fear became reality. The creature was hunched over a dark red stain in the ground and screeched at the ship before unfolding its awful wings. The sound drew their attention. The human fumbled with one of the net throwers as the Amshili altered course of the shiseli towards a shaded pass between rocks. The rough ground made the shiseli shake again.
“Sola damn this desert, I can’t aim with all this shaking,” the human managed to say through the vibrations.
“Hopefully you won't have to. Strigoi avoid the shade. Even if it did come after us here-” The Amshili was cut off by the sound of more shrieking. Two more strigoi peaked into the path, staring down at the loudly rumbling shiseli and crying human. She cursed in Usundi and reached for one of two remaining net throwers.
“You better hope your goddess doesn’t damn this place until after we leave,” the Amshili said, “We’ve got enough bad luck already.”
“What do we do?”
“Use the net thrower if they get closer. We’re moving as fast as we can, maybe we can outrun them.”
The human watched the strigoi take flight and circle over the shady pass. Color drained from his face and he became paler than the day he was born. The Amshili tried to pull him back to the world. “We’re safe for now, but in a few moments we have to return to the open desert. There isn't much else between here and Ka’bar Port. Knowing those creatures, they’re going to strike as soon as we’re in the sun again.”
“But,” the human said, pointing at the sky, “They’re flying away.”
“No, they’re preparing to dive.”
The shiseli thundered through the last meters of the shaded pass. The rattling of the hull slowly settled as it entered the loose sand again, trading the safety of rocks for the slick speed of sand. Only a dozen more meters of shadow from the rock formation were left.
Whistling filled the air as the shiseli entered light again. Three shadows darted toward them from the sun.
“Damn it all, I can't see,” the human cried. The Amshili clenched her beak and adjusted the knobs. Ropes and pulleys answered her command, letting the sail catch as much wind as it could. Audible straining whined over the growing shrieks of the pursuing strigoi. The shiseli could not take much more of this, but if they could survive this attack, the strigoi would likely lose interest.
“Get to the back,” the Amshili squawked, “Use the net thrower when you can see their shadows!” The human shuffled to the back, carrying the throwers under his arm, desperately clinging to the railings. By the time he reached the rear of the shiseli, the strigois’ shadows almost shaded the two as much as the rocks earlier. Half screaming and half crying, he pointed the net thrower at the lead monstrosity and fired.
The net hit it in one of the wings, wrapping it to the chest of the creature and sending it crashing into the shiseli’s dust trail. It vanished into the blood-colored cloud, its compatriots leaving it behind in a tangled mess.
The human fumbled with an empty net thrower and dropped it to the ground as he set up the second device. With more confidence, he leveled it at the leading strigoi. It shrieked at him as he launched the second net squarely into its face. The ensnared creature tumbled backwards from the sudden force and clipped the remaining strigoi, staggering its dive. It flapped its wings aggressively to make up for lost speed, only barely gaining on the shiseli now.
“Here, take mine,” the Amshili said, reaching back to hand the net thrower without looking.
The dunes were getting choppy - if she didn't focus, they could easily jump the shiseli straight into another sandbank and join the many wrecks. The net launcher left her hand, but a thud followed. A brief glance showed the human now crumbled on the ship’s deck. The Hegemony dog had slipped on the dropped net thrower. He now stared at stars while a gash on his head bled all over the deck’s sand. “Argh!” The Amshili shouted, “ Jola’s Eye burn me now!”
A second thud shook the shiseli. The strigoi latched itself on the back and clambered to crawl aboard. The Amshili quickly picked up an empty net gun off the ground and threw it at the emerging face. It hulked over the ship’s railing. The creature, much bigger than the other two, must have been laid in a Wakewalker's corpse!
The Amshili swore as she locked the controls in place. She unfurled the whip she kept on her hip and faced the creature. It pulled its awful torso upwards. The Amshili wasted no time. Her whip bit into the creature’s flesh. It gurgled a mixture between a yelp of pain and a chuckle back at her. The strigoi swiped at her with its large wing. A deft roll allowed her to escape, leaping over the crumpled human. She grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and tossed him towards the front of the shiseli.
The creature advanced towards her. She responded with another lash from her whip. This time, however, the creature caught the weapon with its mouth. It tried to tug the whip from her and dragged her closer to hit with each yank. As she neared the strigoi, the Amshili let out a deafening screech.
Straining her vocal cords, the high-pitched noise stunned the creature. She darted away from the strigoi again. Abandoning her whip, she scanned the ship for anything she could use as a weapon to avoid the creature. The Amshili dove for the shovel she kept aboard and checked on the creature. It crawled forward to the stunned human, drooling as its hooked ovipositor slithered out of its mouth.
Leering over the bleeding man, it seemed to forget about the Amshili. She had only seconds to act, and rushed for an attack. The creature was ready for her assault, bludgeoning her with its wing. The Amshili hit the deck hard and rolled to the side.
Quickly readying herself, she noticed the shiseli’s course. It was starting to ascend a tall dune. If she did not steer clear, the shiseli would jump over the top and crash into the desert upon landing.
The Amshili wasted no time. She dove past the strigoi as it tried to club her again, avoiding its painful blow successfully. Time slowed as she sprinted for the controls. It felt like eons passed between each hasty step stomped onto the deck.
She yanked onto the locked controls instead of stopping and nearly broke a lever in the process. The strigoi followed her, frothing with drool as its disgusting appendage flailed at her.
The controls unlocked with a click. The Amshili turned the shiseli as hard as she could before nearing the dune peak. Sand gave way and the shiseli leaned on to one side. The strigoi slipped back from the turn. The Amshili took her opportunity. Throwing the shovel with all her might, she knocked the monster into the sand. The shiseli raced past the splash it made and left it in the dust cloud.
Exhausted, the Amshili slumped over the controls as she righted the course. She was out of the danger for now, but nowhere was truly safe in the Red Desert.
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