Last Friday’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig had us randomly choose two items and make sure we include them in our story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Chuck Wendig puts a prompt up on his blog every Friday and you have a week to write (usually 1,000 words). I ended up with (1) a distant outpost and (2) an ancient tree. I haven’t written fantasy in a while because my professors will refuse to read it, I got out of the habit, and I realized my longer fantasy pieces some of my weakest characters. That said, I’m working on flexing my fantasy fingers again.
Khaleb pulled the dust-scarf back over his nose and mouth and recorked his water sack. The sloshing was louder than before, the sack now three quarters filled with air. His guide, Ano, waited patiently, only his dark eyes visible. Khaleb nodded and his silent guide pressed his horse forward, the black beast stepping delicately over the corroded road. There were cracks and fissures in the surface that he would have thought came from mere age and weathering–a natural assumption this deep in the Outlands. On the first day of their journey, Khaleb swore as his own horse staggered for the hundredth time on their first day. He damned the road and everyone who toiled on it, provoked by his guide’s reticence.
“Age cannot touch the Draha,” Ano said tonelessly, invoking the ancient name for the road. “It was not the years that did this.”
Khaleb had tried to get more information from Ano, but the man retreated back into unyielding silence and Khaleb was forced to bite his tongue as his horse tripped again. He had made the mistake of staring at the road as they travelled; convinced it was the heat that made the crevices in the rock shimmer and writhe. He had not realized how long he had been hypnotized by the gaps until Ano rapped him on the top of the head with the wooden handle of his riding crop.
“Nearly there,” Ano said over his shoulder.
Khaleb rubbed the knot on his head in remembrance and jerked his eyes back up from the road. He didn’t need another bruise from Ano and his overactive imagination. Almost there, he thought, and even his horse’s ears pricked up in interest. The Ghan-mar Outpost was a lost cause. He knew it and his superiors knew it. If it wasn’t for a minor misunderstanding between him and the General’s daughter, Khaleb never would have been in the Outlands seeking answers from the men at Ghan-mar. There had been no answer to messages for weeks. Thieves, rapists, and a murderer or two. Those were the Ghan-mar elite. The rest of the outpost was manned by deserters and debtors serving out their time in service to His Supreme Eminence in the most godsforsaken corner of this godforsaken country. Khaleb thought longingly of the tavern by the oasis, of soft flatbread dripping with honey, of salted olives, of chilled wine, and of the buxom serving girls. He had no desire to traipse across the desert finding out why the scum of the realm was acting, predictably, like scum. He should be back in Caireb with General Logan’s daughter on his arm. Or in his bed. Miss Audra Logan, the virtuous flower from the Homeland, transplanted in the desert by her distinguished father. He grinned to himself. Audra was neither virtuous, nor anything like the fragile Homeland flower her father proclaimed. Neither of these facts kept him from being packed off to the Outlands and Ghan-mar on this godsdamned mission.
Ano let out a wordless cry and his horse squealed, prancing backwards and nearly knocking Khaleb out of the saddle.
“What in the name of–” Khaleb broke off as he saw what had startled the guide and his horse.
A gnarled tree was sprouting out of the center of the road–in a place where grass could not even grow, in the middle of a sunbaked desert. Khaleb stared in awe at the tree, its trunk was wider than he could wrap his arms around and the twisting branches stabbed towards the lidless burning eye above them. The wood was gray and looked brittle but there were great round fruits hanging from the branches. He squinted against the heat haze and realized as his stomach heaved, that there were eyes staring back at him from bloated skulls. Not eyes–empty sockets that gazed blackly at him, still weeping tears of dried blood. Ano was praying breathlessly and if Khaleb hadn’t been so desperate to conserve what little water was in his body, he would have vomited. He swallowed against the bile in his throat and tore his eyes away from the faces, digging his heels into his horse until the beast took a few reluctant steps forward. He could see the hunched sand-colored outpost in the distance, blurred by the heat. There were stakes driven into the ground beside the road every twenty paces. The headless corpses slouched on their poles, grotesque sentries.
“Who did this?” Khaleb demanded turning towards Ano. He could see the whites of his companion’s eyes in his dark face. “What barbarism is this?”
“We’ll never escape,” Ano mumbled. “We have come too far, too far now.”
“Escape? Escape what?” Khaleb whirled around, scanning the horizon. There was nothing but the desiccated corpses and the unnatural tree.
“They should not have built it here. We told them, when they first came, ‘build no house of man in the Greylands.’ We told them, ‘it is forbidden.’”
“The Greylands?” Khaleb knew the phrase from a cursory reading of badly translated folk stories, he had never heard anyone use it in reference to a real place.
Ano nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the faces in the tree. “It is from the Greylands that they come. The Faded Ones.”
“The who?” Khaleb felt a modicum of relief. If Ano was babbling about ghost stories and this was all some superstitious nonsense, then he could go back to his superiors, tell them that the crazies in Ghan-mar finally offed each other and spend the rest of the evening playing the perfect gentleman to that minx Audra.
“The Faded Ones,” Ano’s voice was barely above a whisper. “They come from the cracks that run between realms. They do not like those that do not respect their ways. That travel the Draha. That think they can tame these lands.
“Ano, those stories are folklore.”
Ano looked at him blankly, eyes wide.
Khaleb repeated, “They’re just stories.”
Ano shook his head. “They are coming.”
As Ano spoke, a high keening wail rose. It sounded at first like the cry of a hawk but Khaleb knew it was coming from the heads on the tree. Khaleb drove his heels into his horse’s flanks and wrenched the animal’s head around. He didn’t care if Ano followed, didn’t care that he did not know the way back through the desert, that the road could well be covered by sand. He did not know how the heads could be wailing if their bloated tongues made no movement, but he lay on his stallion’s neck and urged the animal on with his spurs and his crop and his voice. The dirge filled his ears and he yelled to drown it out. He could hear Ano screaming and the dull thud of his horse’s hooves as the guide followed. Something splashed against his face and he tasted salt and rust. Ano was not screaming any longer.
Khaleb closed his eyes as a hot wind rose in front of him, driving sand into his exposed hands and eyes like shards of glass. His horse balked and he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He dug in his heels and the horse reared, sending him to the ground before he could scramble for a better grip. He saw its dark tail fan out as the frightened beast disappeared in a cloud of powdery dust. He couldn’t breathe. Sand coated his tongue and his side where Ano’s blood clung to his robes. He refused to look back, trying to stand; he fell onto his hands and knees, trembling legs refusing to hold his body. He felt dizzy, there was a sharp pain in his side and he could not catch his breath. He stared at his hands on the road, at the silver-black fissures. There was a sound like a wind chime or pieces of glass being shaken in a dustpan.
He looked to the side and saw a column of sand twirling slowly beside the road. It sparkled in the overpowering sun and he could not help but stare at it as it revolved. It spun faster and faster until it coalesced into a shape. The hooded figure shook once with a little shiver like a cat and sand fell from it like water. Khaleb was rooted to the road. He tried to force himself to crawl but, when he looked at his hands again, he saw that they had disappeared past the wrist, held in the vice of one of the gleaming cracks. The figure knelt beside him and he looked into its face. The face reminded him of the statues on the pagan temples in Caireb, their carven features indistinct, blurred by wind and scoured by sand. It reached out a hand the color of sun-bleached bone and touched his cheek. Its fingers burned like live coals and he tried to pull away. The other hand lifted to his face. It gripped his skull between its hands and pulled.