Nekhtep looked down at Jasilia as they stood in the shadow of the great dune, his expression puzzled. "How could you know where they've taken Ojan? And who's 'they'?"
Even in her distress, Jasilia noted that Nekhtep had broken protocol and chosen not to use one of her twin brother's many formal titles.
She looked off into the east, tracing the trail of frost-laden sand until it disappeared among the dunes. "Have you ever heard of Mekshir?"
"Mekshir?" Nektep beetled his brow. "An ancient outpost or fortress or something, right?"
"That's the one."
"But Mekshir was supposed to have been buried by a khamsin thousands of years ago."
"Well, it looks like it got unburied."
Jasilia grabbed her brother's khopesh from the Risen Guard's hand and set off along the roughly three-foot-wide band of frost, ignoring Nekhtep's calls for her to stop.
A moment later, Nekhtep was beside her. A hand fell on her arm. "Jasilia."
She turned on him, her anger welling up. "What, Nekhtep? No 'O Heritor' or 'My Most Spectacular Pain-in-the-Ass Princess'? My brother—heir to my other royal brother, the all-powerful, know-it-all Ruby Prince—has been taken by undead, and now you want to take the time get personal?"
Nekhtep winced, and Jasilia immediately regretted her words.
"Look, I'm sorry," she said, "it's just—"
Nekhtep threw down his heavy bag of armor and equipment. "Just tell me about Mekshir," he said, in that calm and reassuring voice she used to love. "You were about to explain who took him and how you know."
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
"It's the trail." She motioned to the strip of icy sand beside them. "Pick up your bag and let's get moving before it melts. We can talk on the way."
Nekhtep did as he was bade and they set off, footing their way between the dunes.
"I've read about the history of Mekshir in the royal library at Sothis." Jasilia panted her words as she proceeded at a brisk pace over the sand. "It was a military base guarding what was then a border of the Osirian province of Thuvia. A khamsin struck it toward the end of the Apsu Dynasty, and it was never formally heard from again."
"Anathepses mentions two more accounts of Mekshir in his Desert Empires. The first was in –598 AR—" She made a mental calculation. "Two hundred and forty-three years after Mekshir was buried, if you want to be exact. Seems a caravan on its way to Eto came across a trail of frost on the sand just like this one. They sent off one of their scouts to follow it, and when he never came back, they sent off another. A few nights later, a band of undead attacked. The caravanners fought them off, but in the aftermath they found the two scouts among the fallen enemies, both rotting with the stench of the undead they'd become. The other attackers—skeletons with putrefying flesh still hanging from their bones—were all wearing military regalia, and their shields bore the ancient seal of Mekshir."
"And the other account?"
"According to Anathepses, it didn't end quite so well. Legend says a squad of Xerbystes I's army ran across Mekshir after a monstrous khamsin struck western Osirion and unburied it. The commander and his soldiers were captured by the fortress's undead sentries and brought before the skeletal lord that ruled over the place. The strange thing is, when the ruler interrogated the captives, he seemed to have no clue about the Keleshite interregnum. Banged his scepter in a blind rage whenever the commander mentioned it."
"You said it ended badly," Nekhtep said.
Jasilia nodded. "While Xerbystes's soldiers were holding court with the fortress's lord, another khamsin swept up out of nowhere and reburied Mekshir, along with the captive Keleshites."
Nekhtep laughed. "Then how did anyone learn of their story?"
"Anathepses doesn't say." When Nekhtep gave her a skeptical look, she said, "Look, you know how spotty the details are in these old histories. Presumably one of the party escaped."
The Risen Guard stopped walking and placed his hands on his hips, surveying the seemingly endless dune field from the top of the rise as sweat beaded down his brown cheeks.
"You're not going to like what I'm about to say," he said, "but hear me out. We're not going to get far without the camels. We should head west, follow the Junira north until we hit the caravan route. Then we can hitch a ride east to Shiman-Sekh and get aid from the Risen Guard contingent stationed there to mount a rescue mission. If we head out into the deep desert alone and the trail melts before—"
Jasilia cleared her throat and pointed to Nekhtep's left. The Risen Guard turned slowly to be greeted by the bleating of a camel strutting up the side of the dune, its reins dragging over the sand. When it reached the top, the great dromedary loped past Nekhtep and knelt down on all four legs directly before Jasilia.
"There, there, Yamala." She rubbed the beast's side. "I wasn't going to leave you behind." She leveled an accusatory gaze at Nekhtep. Then, taking up the reins, she swung a leg over the low point between the beast's shoulders and mounted bareback. "You coming?"
Nekhtep didn't look happy, but finally he spread his hands in surrender and got onto the beast behind Jasilia.
Jasilia felt herself shift back against Nekhtep's muscular form as the camel rose to its feet. For a brief moment she allowed herself to be comforted by the feel of her ex-lover's embrace. Then, as the camel swung them forward, she squirmed and tried to scoot forward out of his encircling arms. He only held on to her tighter.
"Don't get any ideas, Risen One," she said. "You gave up that option when you decided to die under the Ruby Prince's blade."
"For the record," he said, "I still think this is a bad idea. We've only got so much water."
"Then you'll die again, but this time for a worthy cause: trying to save the life of Osirion's royal heir."
"Or we'll all die and I'll lose you twice."
"Hey, you could have had me, remember? It didn't mean anything to me that you were a commoner. I agreed to flee the country with you, but you wouldn't have it."
"When I swore an oath to the pharaoh that our relationship was over, I had no idea he would show his 'compassion' by making me your bodyguard." Nekhtep's jaw tensed. "But I don't regret my decision to go under the blade."
"Why?" Jasilia's heart pounded.
"There were... other considerations."
The only answer was the throaty roar of the camel as she guided it toward the trail of unearthly frost. Jasilia urged Yamala into a trot and they made their way east into the sun's ruthless gaze.
∗ ∗ ∗
Though the trail left by the undead lasted longer in the heat of the day than any mundane frost had a right to, by noon it had all but vanished. Within the next hour, it was gone completely. Still, Jasilia and Nekhtep pushed on to the east. They had followed the trail, threading through valleys of sand and climbing the faces of myriad dunes and down their precipitous slipfaces, long enough that Jasilia, with her long-practiced desert senses, had a rough estimate of their quarry's direction. Even so, they were heading into the deep desert, and she knew how far off course they might find themselves if they deviated even a tenth of a degree from their intended destination.
Nekhtep, for his part, had remained quiet since the outset of their journey. It was as if he had decided it was better to let Jasilia come to understand the futility of their quest on her own rather than press the matter. At least that was her best guess. Who knew what the man was thinking? It wasn't important anyway. All that mattered now was getting Ojan back.
Jasilia cursed. "We must be halfway to the Glazen Sheets by now!"
"Not even a quarter of the way, I'm afraid." Nekhtep shook his flask, his features creased with worry as the water sloshed hollowly within. "You know the old saying. 'A walk in the desert is worth four in Sothis.'"
Jasilia said nothing. She could feel the truth of the adage as the sand gave way beneath the camel's every step. She could feel it in the rise of every dune they climbed, in every slight detour they took through the valleys of sand. All of these things conspired to elongate the distance to their destination, wherever it might lie.
The hardship of desert travel was a lesson she had learned in her bones from an early age, when she and Ojan had been but rebellious children escaping into the sands to elude the ever-watchful eyes of their strict and ever-so-boring royal keepers. Dune runners, one of their tutors had once spat at the two twins, as if it were a curse. The intractable royal siblings had immediately seized on the epithet, pridefully signing their runaway notes with the sobriquet before each escape attempt, setting it in the royal case to give the title the proper respect: Give our regards to our brother, His Majesty the Pharaoh. Yours truly, The Dune Runners.
The memory brought a smile to her lips, and she mused on how little things had changed. Did not the Ruby Prince still forbid their research expeditions into the deep desert? Were not multiple squads of the Risen Guard at this very moment scouring the every crook and qanat across the land in search of the now-adult twins? Had not her older brother—knowing full well Jasilia and Ojan would stubbornly ignore his royal command not to leave Sothis and instead run off to pursue their insatiable inquiries into Osirion's past—assigned Nekhtep to be her ever-present bodyguard to ease his worries?
She licked her cracked lips, feeling the scant moisture upon them immediately evaporate into the dry air. As they paused to let Yamala catch her breath after cresting a steep dune, Jasilia looked back and noticed Nekhtep staring intently to the northeast. She turned to follow his gaze, a thrill of both exhilaration and fear running through her as her vision settled on the object of his interest.
Wavering in the heat perhaps two miles ahead, immense turreted bulwarks of reddish stone rose up, half buried, out of the steep and drifting sands. Figures made tiny by distance swarmed like ants between the crenellated wall walks, while droves other of small forms swathed the great rises of sand shrouding the lower portions of the massive structure. The latter figures seemed to be concentrated along the base of the walls, where great clouds of dust wafted on the wind as if kicked up by the workers' furious excavation of the fortress from the dunes. All told, the horde swarming the sands must have numbered at least a hundred, and that didn't account for any others that might reside within the walls.
"What was that you said about going to Shiman-Sekh to get reinforcements?"
In answer to her question, Nekhtep began to turn Yamala back around the way they had come. Even as he did so the strong winds shifted, buffeting them with a malodorous gale. It was a stench all too familiar to Jasilia—the fetor of the crypt.
Yamala reared back, bleating in terror and nearly throwing her riders to the scalding sands. Nekhtep's arm tightened viselike about Jasilia. She heard the sound of steel on leather as the Risen Guard drew his blade.
The patrol of undead soldiers came at them from all directions.
Coming Next Week: Mekshir revealed in Chapter Three 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