The Red Wind's Fire
A Short Story
by E. S. Furlán
Hot wet blood gushed from the wound in Aldert's thigh. His shoulder ached with the ghost of a dislocation, hurriedly shoved back into its socket as he passed a suitable rock. He had no time for more tender care, though every jostled step reminded him that he would need rest sooner rather than later. As long as he avoided death, he knew his flesh would mend. Though the pain threatened to break him, he knew his flesh was made of stone, not glass, and so would weather the abuse with only a few scrapes to show for it, no matter what his rival clan's warriors did to him. He squinted up at the sun, relentless in its heat. Sweat beaded and ran down his ebony forehead and into the creases beside his eyes.
Perhaps Fata was right, he thought. Perhaps I am too old for such adventures. Perhaps I should have listened to my liege lord.
Not that he could do much about it now. The fiends who pursued him were young and strong, but he had almost four decades of experience to counter their youth. He had faced worse odds in the pit. The dry orange dirt of the desert offered him no safe harbour from those hunting him, but it served a dual purpose in allowing him to track how far they were behind him. Not far enough, though it seemed they had lost their horses, to the heat or exhaustion. He turned his attention forward to where a glimmer of hope lay. He knew better than anyone the tricks the red wind known as the Kharessahr could play on the mind, but the tree line ahead had not yet melted away. If he could make it to the brush, if he could outpace his pursuers long enough to find even the tiniest sliver of cover, he would be safe, with His Deathly Lady's blessing. He urged his aching body onwards.
Finally he stumbled past the first dry shrub that marked the desert's waning grasp, then another and another still. Overground roots hampered his progress, catching on his battered boots as quickly as they broke before the power of his stride. A thick shadow under a rock caught his eye, coaxing a weary smile onto his face. Salvation. He fell to his knees before it and let his mind quiet, finding the soft growl of Lady Erwen within him that allowed him to shadow walk.
The transition from desert to Void was all but painless. Erwen, goddess of death, welcomed him to her with joy, as always. He longed for the sweet darkness her embrace could grant, though he knew his death would not achieve it as it had done for so many he'd known.
He heard footsteps echo around the rock. Disjointed, as though underwater or through a mud wall, he counted his pursuers as they hunted for him in vain. He was tempted to spring out from his hiding place, to leave the Void and send Erwen a gift of seven souls, but he knew better. He had only his falcata, a small curved blade with the power of an axe and the blade of a sword, which would be fine except that his dominant arm was weakened. The Void had numbed the aches and cuts but it would not last long once he rejoined the land of the living. He wished that it would pull and call to him as it did others, but it did nothing more than harbour him, as a polite host too genteel to insist her guest leave.
Finally the sounds of the men and women hunting him abated, though he could not say how far or in which direction.
He waited a while longer, then reluctantly pushed against the divide and found himself spewed out into the setting sun, thick dry dust catching in every loose fold of his cloudcloth coat and scarf, worming its way into his locked hair and clinging in thick patches to every damp stretch of skin exposed. No longer in a haze of red and orange but surrounded by rich greens and purples, a scent of blessed water in the air and the quiet thrum of life so constantly absent from the desert greeted him. His mind spun, then settled as he realised what had happened.
He must have drifted whilst inside the Void, no longer on the desert's fringe but instead laying prone on pale rocks among greenery. Some time had passed, too, but whether it was hours or days, he could not say. Such things were known to happen at times, though he had more than his fair share of drifting in the Void. He wondered at what Fata would think of his failure to return, though he knew she would not send search parties. Only a bodiless funeral awaited him back at the second largest Indric clan's tents. He swallowed back his grief, reminding himself that all things must end. He sat up, ignoring the sting as his leg flexed to right himself, and caught sight of a city looming over a vast labyrinth. He sighed. Anukthar. His Lady had deposited him at the gates of her holy city. He bowed his head and trudged towards the infamous labyrinth.
After walking until the sun was all but set, he passed the crumbling statue of a gargoyle for what felt like the twentieth time. The maze changed as quickly as he could memorise it. Perhaps Erwen had led him back to her after all, bored of his antics and finally ready to claim him. He slumped against the maze wall, sliding down it with a wince as his trousers pulled at his injured leg.
"Go on then, take me!" he shouted to the heavens. "Take me and be done with it!"
"Very well,” a smooth voice answered him. He jumped and stared around until he caught sight of a young woman, clothed in darkened leather, her umber skin and dark coiled hair barely a silhouette against the sky. “Shall it be by blade or by rock?"
Frissons of Erwen's presence radiated off her. Where Erwen merely toyed with Aldert, She bestowed her favour and blessings freely upon the young woman before him. One of her sacred Acolytes, enactor of Erwen's will in the physical realm. He bowed his head low to her.
“If I must choose, I would die by blade, but if there is a third choice of life, it is a debt I would gladly repay,” he answered. The young woman surveyed him silently.
“Can you fight?” she asked. Aldert nodded. She smiled, her teeth all but glowing in the fading light. “Good. You will accompany me to Anukthar. What is your name?”
“Aldert,” he told her. “And yours, my lady?”
“I am no lady,” she laughed. “I am Cassia.”