Dune Runner

by Christopher Paul Carey

Chapter One: The Storm

Searing heat and abrasive, sand-laden winds burned the exposed patches of skin around Jasilia's stylized brass goggles. She slipped a hand beneath her tightly drawn burnoose and adjusted the scarf around raw cheeks, her other hand thrust up under the half-buried opening of the tomb's great stone lip so the wailing winds wouldn't sweep her away.

Beside her, what looked like an oversized scarab in human form gestured frantically at her to get below. Nekhtep the Constant, the Risen Guard assigned to protect her, lived up to both his duty and his honorary title, but the sight of him tore at her more fiercely than the khamsin's fury. She looked away, watching streaks of blue-tinged flame soar up over the desert and scorch the charcoal sky.

The ages-old struggle between the elemental chieftains would go on forever, it seemed. But then, wasn't that built into their natures? Fire consumed air and air fed fire—not unlike her and Nekhtep, each forever seared by the other's presence. Like the elemental forces of nature, there was no arguing it. After their indiscretions came to light, Nekhtep had chosen to end their relationship and die under the pharaoh's blade. A fortunate development, the Ruby Prince had remarked. Better than my sister disgracing herself by marrying a commoner.

The screaming sands drowned out her curse. It was just as well. She would rather Nekhtep not hear it.

A Risen Guard gives his life for the Pharaoh—and that's just the beginning

Jasilia turned from the storm and descended into the tomb. A few moments later, a heavy scraping of stone on stone grated above. The silence that followed was filled only by the ringing in her ears and the coughing fit that seized Nekhtep as dust and sand settled in the enclosed space. She knelt on the narrow ramp, removed a foot-long rod from her bag, and struck it against the rough stone at her feet. The tip blossomed with silvery light.

The glow revealed a steep, limestone-walled corridor barely wider than her shoulders, its ceiling crawling with hieroglyphs from a forgotten age. Keeping her weight on her heels, she shuffled downward while Nekhtep's half-plate scarab armor clanked and clattered behind her. After they had proceeded what Jasilia judged to be about thirty feet below the surface, the floor leveled. A pile of rubble strewn beneath a dark, yawning hole in the far wall marked the corridor's end.

"We'll be down here a while." She placed a boot heel on the uneven rocks to judge their stability. "Might as well make our stay useful."

"Let me go first, O Heritor." Nekhtep tried to sidle past Jasilia in the narrow corridor, but she held out an arm to block him.

"Not a chance. You know I always go first. Royal privilege."

"But the tomb may still be guarded—"

"You did read the inscriptions on the way down?"

Nekhtep looked sheepish beneath his beetle-headed helmet.

"Oh. Right. We really do need to get you back to school, Nekhtep. The glyphs indicate interment of one Sebti Heptna. Minor nobility. Probably could barely afford to construct the tomb, let alone an eternal protector."

She almost felt bad for needling him. After all, the glyphs were an unusual regional variant, and she could read only about a quarter of them herself. Besides, Nekhtep was doubtless more proficient in the ancient tongues of the region than most of the foreign "scholars" her older brother had crawling all over the country. But she couldn't help herself. Anything to get through that Risen Guard stoicism.

Nekhtep relented and stepped back, but he drew his khopesh from its wide leather scabbard.

She rolled her eyes, then climbed over the rubble into the darkness.

The passage led her through five feet of solid, jagged-edged rock before opening onto a shallow ledge running along the perimeter of a small chamber. Above the ledge, depictions of humanoid figures painted in burgundy and turquoise danced across high limestone walls in sunk relief. Funerary ceramics lay overturned and broken along the room's far side. A large chunk of the east wall showed only bare, uneven rock where the smooth stone had been chiseled out, presumably so the vandals could abscond with some treasure embedded in the stone.

Two sarcophagi—a massive one that doubtless once held Sebti Heptna's remains and another that appeared to be sized for a human infant or small child—lay in the chamber's center. The limestone covering of the smaller sarcophagus still lay in place and seemingly undamaged. The heavy stone lid of the larger sarcophagus was cracked and lay toppled to one side, and from her position on the ledge Jasilia could see that the inner coffin was missing.

But thank Abadar, the thieves had left behind the greatest treasure of all: a small, unassuming row of hieroglyphs cut into a plain limestone ribbon circling the chamber's uppermost reaches. Now if only she knew enough of the regional dialect to make sense of the glyphs.

Jasilia tossed her glowing rod to the basalt floor and hopped down to retrieve it.

"Come on in!"

She turned to find Nekhtep already emerging from the tunnel onto the ledge above her. The Risen Guard removed his helmet and proceeded to doff his armor. She snuck a look at the muscular form that emerged from the half-plate, though she winced when she saw the burns the khamsin sands had seared on that handsome face. Earlier on their journey she had teased him for carrying along the heavy, suffocating armor. Now she saw that it had saved his life. She would never forgive herself if she got him killed.


A sick feeling crept into Jasilia's stomach. "You're sure Ojan made it to the eastern tomb?"

Nekhtep nodded down to her. "He signaled to me that he'd be fine, and to get you below. Then he led the camels down with him. I waited long enough to see that he'd sealed himself up."

She sighed with relief. "Then there's nothing we can do but wait out the storm."

While Nekhtep extricated himself from his armor, Jasilia walked to the south wall, removed a decorative torch from an ancient stone sconce jutting from the ledge, and affixed her glowing rod in its place. She took a field-book and stylus from her bag and knelt down, craning her neck as she began to transcribe the glyphs from the limestone ribbon above. She heard Nekhtep jump down into the chamber, trying her best to ignore him as he made a circuit of the tomb, presumably to verify with his own senses that nothing in the chamber presented a threat to his royal charge.

"Early Second Age?" Nekhtep asked.

Out of the corner of her eye, Jasilia could see him examining the glyphs on the child-sized sarcophagus's stone casing.

"No," she said. "Khamos's tip was wrong this time. The tomb is Late Apsu, or maybe Middle Osezis Period. See the Pahmet influence in the murals? Definitely not as early as Khamos claimed. But that's what I get for trusting a ghoul."

Stone grated, followed by a loud thunk. She looked up to see Nekhtep dusting himself off, the covering of the smaller sarcophagus lying off-kilter. Jasilia cursed. "At least watch that you don't damage the inscription."

Now Nekhtep was leaning into the sarcophagus and probing its bottom with the point of his khopesh. Jasilia tried to concentrate on transcribing the glyphs, translating what she could as she sketched the archaic symbols. She felt she was on the verge of deciphering the meaning of a particularly troublesome glyph when an eruption of Nekhtep's clattering blade caused her to break the tip of her stylus.

"Stop it!" she snapped. "You're worse than a Pathfinder, compromising the site like that!"

The scraping of Nekhtep's khopesh ceased, but she could still hear him rustling about in the well of the sarcophagus. Jasilia threw her notebook and stylus to the dusty floor and stood, whirling to confront him.

"If you don't cut it out, I'll—"

An unearthly yowl filled the chamber. Nekhtep raised his arm out of the sarcophagus, and a small feline head—skull-like and with eyes that glowed red in the torchlight—emerged with it, the creature's sharp teeth clamped onto the man's leather armband.

Jasilia shook off a shiver fear and, drawing her short sword, ran toward Nekhtep. The man didn't wait for her, however, and his khopesh made short work of the ubashki. He held the undead cat aloft by a loose wrapping, coolly examining the creature as it spun slowly before him.

"Too poor for a guardian?" Nekhtep mused. "I guess the poor make due." He dropped the ubashki back into the coffin and rubbed his hands together as if trying to flick off the creature's filth.

"You call that a guardian?" Jasilia slid her sword back into its leather sheath. "When it's my time to kick off, I'll find myself a proper protector to have strangled and stand vigil over my tomb, not a harmless little housecat." She looked Nekhtep up and down, as if appraising his value.

Nekhtep's expression was as still as the limestone walls. "Dying once for you wasn't enough?"

Jasilia heard her own breath catch in the silence of the tomb.

She straightened and walked across the chamber with feigned aplomb. "In any case," she continued, picking up her field-book from the dusty floor and tracing over a glyph with the half-broken tip of her stylus, "at least the looters who came before us were smart enough not to disturb that sarcophagus. Now can you stay put and let me get back to my transcription?"

It was dark enough in the tomb that she might have imagined Nekhtep's smirk.

∗ ∗ ∗

When they estimated that morning had come, Nekhtep heaved aside the great stone slab that sealed the tomb. After unburying themselves from the deluge of sand that fell down into the passage, Jasilia and Nekhtep emerged into a world that looked very different from that of the day before. Morning's golden rays skimmed through small valleys of sand, dappling the seemingly unending field of dunes that had risen up overnight. That the barren plains of the Glazen Sheets lay a mere few days' journey to the east only made the sudden appearance of the great sand mountains that much more astonishing.

Jasilia looked about the site, her anxiety mounting. Where was the entrance to the other tomb in which Ojan had sealed himself to escape the khamsin's wrath? She tried to orient herself by the sun's position in relation to the tomb opening they had just exited.

Her stomach turned. The other tomb had been to the southwest, just about where an immense wall of sand now rose from the rolling scape—a mound so high she and Nekhtep could never hope to unbury it by themselves.

She took off across the sands and ran up the dune's convex rise, her leg muscles straining as the sand gave way beneath each desperate step. When at last she reached the crest of the dune, she looked down its leeward side. Some twenty feet below, an arcing shadow darkened the bottom of the slipface, but not enough that she couldn't see the black opening at the base and a rectangular block of limestone cast aside next to the hole. A whitish trail, perhaps a vein of salt unearthed by the storm, ran from the edge of the hole and snaked eastward, disappearing into a valley of sand. A few yards from the opening lay the bloody corpses of two of her party's three camels.

A moment later, Nekhtep was beside her, looking down over the dune's crest. Then they were both heeling their way down the slipface into the dune's cool shadow, sand sloughing from the great mound with each footfall.

When they reached the base, Jasilia entered the hole and scampered down the tomb's steep entryway, the scuffing tread of Nekhtep's boots following close behind. As the dim light from the surface fell away, she removed another rod from her bag and struck it on the floor, bathing the narrow corridor in an ashen glow.

The passage opened onto a tomb much plainer in design than the one in which she and Nepkhtep had spent the night. Bare stone walls enclosed the small chamber, in the center of which lay an open sarcophagus, doubtless plundered of its meager treasures in some lost age. Three dromedary saddles sat stacked against one wall alongside Ojan's supply pack.

But the tomb's architecture and her party's equipment weren't what grabbed Jasilia's attention. No, it was the stink of undeath that assaulted the confining chamber, and the two humanoid forms that lay unmoving before the sarcophagus. One had been decapitated, by the swing of a khopesh if she judged correctly. The other had been cleaved nearly in two at the waist.

She knelt to examine the severed head and wrinkled her nose.

"The flesh is still rotting," she said.

Nekhtep began examining the chamber and disappeared behind the sarcophagus. When he rose, he held a finely crafted khopesh in his hand.

"Ojan's," Jasilia breathed.

She stood, feeling the blood draining from her face. "No. It can't be that."

"What?" Nekhtep said. "Can't be what?"

But Jasilia was already bolting back up the passageway on her way to the surface. When she emerged, she fell to her knees beside the whitish trail leading from the mouth of the tomb and scooped some of the substance into her hand. Instead of the dry grit of salt or some other mineral, she felt only cold.

Nekhtep came up out of the tomb entrance and stood over her.

"What is it?"

Jasilia rose and sieved the mix of melting frost and sand through her fingers and onto Nekhtep's open palm.

"I know where they've taken Ojan."

Coming Next Week: Death in the desert in Chapter Two of "Dune Runner"!

Christopher Paul Carey is an Associate Editor at Paizo, and the coauthor of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa with Hugo Award-winning author Philip José Farmer. His short fiction may be found in anthologies such as Tales of the Wold Newton Universe, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, Tales of the Shadowmen, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. He holds an M.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and has edited numerous collections, anthologies, and novels. Visit Chris online at www.cpcarey.com and follow him on Twitter.

Illustration by Damon Westenhofer

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Liberty's Edge

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I enjoyed this, as Osirion is one of my favorite places on Golarion. The Risen Guard is also a fascinating concept -- and we see the issue of class playing a part in Osirion.

Mind you, my PFS characters would have something to say about the remark about Pathfinders. ;) I am looking forward to the next installment in the series.

2 people marked this as a favorite.

It's kinda a toss up for me as to what's cooler here - a story with Jasilia and Ojan in it or the chance for fiction by Chris Carey!

Loved this:

"She would never forgive herself if she got him killed."


Associate Editor

Thanks, guys!

William Ronald wrote:
Mind you, my PFS characters would have something to say about the remark about Pathfinders. ;)

Jasilia is definitely an interesting viewpoint character to write.

Liberty's Edge

Christopher Paul Carey wrote:

Thanks, guys!

William Ronald wrote:
Mind you, my PFS characters would have something to say about the remark about Pathfinders. ;)
Jasilia is definitely an interesting viewpoint character to write.

Oh, I enjoy it. I think that Jasilia does have her own opinions, and much is influenced by her class -- and she may well have her own prejudices deriving from her position to overcome.

Associate Editor

William Ronald wrote:
and she may well have her own prejudices deriving from her position to overcome.

She may indeed. :) Though not necessarily the same ones as, say, her brother, the Ruby Prince.

Liberty's Edge

Christopher Paul Carey wrote:
William Ronald wrote:
and she may well have her own prejudices deriving from her position to overcome.
She may indeed. :) Though not necessarily the same ones as, say, her brother, the Ruby Prince.

Trust me when I say I have seen people from the same family turn out to be very different people.

Really liked this. Can't wait until next week.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Ok, awesomeness quotient reached. Going to be following this one pretty intently for my next Lore Warden.

Read this as I am a fan of CPC's writing, not very familiar with the Pathfinder world, but this opening chapter makes it obvious this is some type of Ancient Egyptian setting within the Pathfinder world. Looked a few things up on the Pathfinder Wiki, but everything is basically on the page. Jasilia is a cool character, but I have to admit Nekhtep is my favorite. Although I do have a soft spot for swordsmen in heroic fiction. Great opening chapter.

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