With a cry, Nekhtep kicked his heels into the camel's sides and swung the beast toward the ghastly soldier on their left, charging down the dune's face. The move seemed to take the skeletal thing by surprise. Moldering flesh hanging in loose patches from its skull, the creature raised a longsword only to see the weapon driven out of its hands by a powerful blow from Nekhtep's khopesh. The Risen Guard's next swing lopped off the unliving soldier's head, which rolled down the dune's side, leaving behind shreds of rotting skin on the baking sand.
As Nekhtep swung the camel around to face the other soldiers, Jasilia pried herself free from his grasp and flung herself onto the sand. She tumbled down the dune's face, for a moment out of control. She thrust out a leg and dug a foot into the sand, sliding to a halt beneath a man-sized shadow.
A putrid stench wafted over her. She looked up to find a skeletal form looming, the desert sun glinting through the thing's partially exposed ribcage. Jasilia kicked with all her might, her boot heel slamming into the creature's shin. The thing stumbled and fell on top of her. She gagged on the nauseating smell even as her sword's point scraped along the unliving soldier's lacquered-leather breastplate and lodged somewhere in its bony neck.
The skeleton screeched like something out of a nightmare, its bony frame shuddering violently, and then was still.
Jasilia heaved the loose assemblage of bones and armor to one side and leapt to her feet. Another wailing skeleton was running at her, an ancient-looking axe of black iron raised over its head in two gauntleted hands. She turned a shoulder and hurled herself at the thing, her sword angled forward. The collision knocked the air from her lungs. It took a few moments to realize she had succeeded in thrusting her sword beneath the creature's jaw, completely skewering its skull.
She leapt to her feet, casting about for her next attacker, only to find Nekhtep hacking the sharp edge of his khopesh into the face of the last skeleton still standing. The thing fell at his feet.
Nekhtep brought the camel to Jasilia's side and made to dismount, but Yamala bleated when it neared the rotting corpse at her feet and refused to let him down. Nekhtep circled his mount around her, dark eyes filled with concern. Apparently satisfied that she was unhurt, he nodded for Jasilia to follow while he strutted Yamala some distance from the corpses and finally managed to bring the beast to a halt. Though Yamala's large brown eyes still seemed uneasy, she lowered to her knees and allowed Nekhtep to dismount.
"With any luck, no one saw what just happened." Nekhtep motioned to the dune that blocked their view of the bulwarked military garrison and the hordes of unliving soldiers that were digging it from the sands.
Panting from the exertion of battle, Jasilia scabbarded her sword and fell to her knees on the hot sand. "Those soldiers," she said, trying to regain her breath. "They—"
Nekhtep's stare cut off her words.
"What is it?" she asked.
The Risen Guard said nothing. Instead, he signaled for Yamala to rise and walked the camel to Jasilia's side. His face was solemn, almost mournful. "Wait here."
Jasilia did as instructed, eyeing the man quizzically as he passed her the reins.
Nekhtep walked back over to the corpses while Jasilia tried to soothe the skittish camel. She watched as Nekhtep knelt beside one of the skeletons and wrenched something free from its neck. Then he took a bag from the corpse's hip and shook out its contents, kneeling over the scattering of coins that had fallen onto the sand. A few moments later he was back at Jasilia's side, a silver medallion dangling from a chain that he held in his hand with a kerchief, as if he didn't want to defile the object with his touch.
Jasilia gasped, her stomach roiling with fear and sickness. The royal seal of the Forthbringers stamped upon the medallion's face.
"Don't worry, that's not Ojan back there," Nekhtep said as if reading her thoughts. "I'd thought it might be, but I was wrong. Here, take a look." He dropped the medallion and chain to the sand and thumbed a gold coin from the folds of his kerchief.
"Stamped in Thuvia over five thousand years ago, like all the rest in the thing's possession." Nekhtep twirled the coin and presented its face to Jasilia. "These soldiers lived—and died—during the reign of Yafeha I."
"My brother... None of those things is..." Jasilia began to choke up, then steeled her will and began again. "My brother isn't among the corpses, then?"
"No. But if this was the group that captured him and he isn't among them, it can mean only one of two things." Nekhtep left his statement hanging.
"That he's dead, or that they brought him there." Jasilia pointed through the dune that stood between them and Mekshir.
Nekhtep nodded. "I'm sorry. I should have insisted that we go to Shiman-Sekh for help. But I've never been able to say no to you."
Jasilia knelt on the scalding sand and began rifling through her sack. "You've never been able to say anything these past six months. But now's not the time to get sentimental, guardsman." She dug deeper into the bag. "Now where is it? Ah, here we go."
From the depths of her sack she pulled out a small bundle of crimson linen.
"What is it?" Nekhtep asked.
Jasilia smiled grimly up at him. "Our ticket into Mekshir. I hope."
∗ ∗ ∗
Jasilia drew Yamala close and whispered in her ear, then clapped the beast on the rear. Instantly, the camel took off, heading away from the fortress until she was lost from sight among the dunes.
With great care, Jasilia unwrapped the little bundle she had removed from her bag until she exposed the treasure swaddled within the cloth: a dried and neatly pressed desert rose shot with the colors of a spectacular Osirian sunset. She placed the flower on her open palm and began tracing the air with her other hand, outlining the archaic hieroglyph for Ra, the ancient sun god. As her hand continued to sketch the invisible character, she began to mutter in low tones the tongue of her long-dead ancestors. She was thankful she had forced herself to pause long enough at the outset of their journey to prepare the spell. The hope it gave her was faint, but she had to try.
She concentrated, forcing every thought from her mind. Just as she succeeded in losing herself in the antiquated words and phrasings, a flame roared up from the desert a half-dozen yards before her. A gust of hot air swept over her as the flame took on a fiery, snakelike form, vacillating in size from three to four feet tall as it undulated, coiling and uncoiling like an agitated asp.
"You've been practicing, I see." Nekhtep took a step back from the elemental being, as if unsure of her ability to keep it under her command.
Jasilia ignored him and addressed the fiery creature in Ancient Osiriani, her voice charged with regal authority. "I am the holy heir to Osirion's throne. Obey me, servitor."
The being's serpentine head lowered in obeisance.
She gave the creature its instructions while Nekhtep looked on in awed silence. She finished her behest by jabbing a finger to the northeast. A mouth formed out of the reddish-orange flames of the elemental's ophidian face, a smoldering tongue of fire flitting out of the orifice as if to taste her words. Then the thing sped off in the direction Jasilia had indicated, slithering along the scalding sands toward its goal.
"Now follow me and do exactly as I do," Jasilia said.
Nekhtep nodded curtly, and Jasilia took off into the dunes without looking back to see whether the Risen Guard was behind her. She knew Nekhtep would follow her to the ends of the earth—not because of any lingering sentiment, but because the pharaoh had commanded him to protect her at all costs. So be it. Anything that helped her save Ojan was good enough for her.
She ran on, drawing on many years of desert living to choose the best route through the dunes that would keep them from being seen. Nekhtep's bootfalls thudded softly in the sands behind her, his breaths becoming increasingly heavier. Though the guard was much stronger than she, the desert had taught her endurance, and Jasilia only felt barely winded by the time they emerged from a little valley of sand and found the fortress's western wall looming a couple hundred yards away.
All along the steep bank of sand rising up to Mekshir's half-buried walls, the undead soldiers had risen from their tasks and were shambling off to the east. High on the wall walks the soldiers were also moving to get a glimpse of the elemental burning its way across the sands below the eastern ramparts. Though the nearest skeletons were still but a few dozen yards away, Jasilia motioned for Nekhtep to follow. The spell would only buy them so much time.
They ran up the dune toward the western wall, leg muscles straining. When they reached the wall, they sprinted along it until they reached the southwestern corner.
Jasilia cursed softly when Nekhtep grabbed her by the arm and pushed her roughly behind him, holding her back as he peered around the corner. She struggled in his grip to no avail; he was simply too strong. But not too nimble, she thought, and drove her heel into the back of his knee.
Nekhtep thrust a hand against the wall's rough red stone to keep from falling, and Jasilia broke free from his grasp.
She clucked her tongue as if she were chiding a small child. "Now, now, we'll have none of that." She stepped around him and gazed along the southern wall. To the east she could see a tiny flame in the distance, scorching its way across the sand at great speed as the legion of unliving soldiers swarmed after it. The elemental was doing exactly as she had commanded, slithering in among the soldiers and then slithering quickly out, taunting them with its proximity. The fiery being from another plane sped along at almost twice the speed of the soldiers, zipping off after each brief penetration of their ranks and drawing them ever farther to the southeast.
She punched Nekhtep hard in the shoulder. "Now cut out the chivalry bit, all right?" Then she sprinted along the wall for the nearest ladder the undead had been using to clean sand from parapets.
When she reached it, she jumped up and began climbing, Nekhtep close at her heels. Only a short distance up, she lost her grip as she placed her hand upon a slick board. She managed to grab another board and cling to it, but found it was also wet to the touch.
A violent retch threatened to surge up as she realized the reason for the boards' slickness. Spongy patches of rotting flesh, bits of internal organs, and various bodily fluids spattered the ladder's wooden steps. She clamped her teeth together and tried to swallow back the rising bile, focusing her thoughts on her mission—to rescue her brother from the horrific things that inhabited the fortress—and resumed her climb.
Her hands filthy and her once-white burnoose now streaked with the detritus of undeath, she could finally see the rim of the wall walk just above. She pulled herself up, hand over hand, driven only by the thought of getting off the disgusting ladder as quickly as possible. When at last she reached her goal, she pulled her head up over the ledge—and gazed into the face of her worst nightmare.
"Welcome to Mekshir, O Holy Scion," the towering skeleton rasped. "Your brother and I have been expecting you."
Coming Next Week: Desperate ploys in Chapter Four 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