Utgar lay flat against the sand, his breathing shallow. He blinked his eyes to rid them of the sweat from his brow, but it did little to help. He pulled himself forwards across the sand ever so slightly, and peered over the edge of the dune.
Below, in a canyon between two dunes, were at least fifteen kyrie. They were soldiers. They wore the armor of the Empire, and were equipped with spears and swords; far more elegant weapons than the crude axe which Utgar gripped. Fifteen. Utgar counted them. Fifteen. That was hardly a large number. They must only be a scouting party. But what were they doing this far into the Volcarren?
Beside Utgar, Runa moved up and glanced over the dune. Utgar put a warning hand on her shoulder, but it was unnecessary; Runa knew to be cautious. She looked at the soldiers, her eyes darting from one to another.
Utgar turned back to the soldiers. They were resting, or at least they were trying to. Many were sweating in their armor, unaccustomed to the Volcarren heat. None of them appeared ready to fly anytime soon. Now was their chance.
Utgar tapped Runa on the shoulder. “Time to go,” he whispered.
She nodded, and began inching her way backwards, slithering across the sand like a Volcarren Viper. Utgar copied her, and they both slid soundlessly down the side of the dune, coming to rest against a rocky outcropping.
“Why are they here?” Runa asked immediately, her voice still a whisper.
Utgar shook his head. They were still far too close. He beckoned to Runa, and they inched along the outcropping until they came to a small opening, just big enough for a kyrie to crawl through.
Runa went first, quickly disappearing into the dark hole. Utgar followed, crawling along, his chest nearly touching the rough, rocky floor. After a few moments of discomfort, the hole widened, and Utgar was able to stand up next to Runa.
They were in a large cavern, roughly circular in shape, its walls a maze of boulders and crevices. One end narrowed into a tunnel large enough to walk in. Its walls were lit with fading daylight. Utgar and Runa crossed to it, and soon emerged in a vast canyon, its walls lined with caves like the one they had just left. They turned right, and began walking along the canyon.
“Why are they here?” Runa asked again as they walked.
“I don’t know,” Utgar said slowly. “But whatever they’re after, it can’t be good.”
“Maybe they’re just looking around,” Runa said fairly.
Utgar glanced at her. “Looking around?” he repeated, a smile tugging at his mouth despite his best efforts.
“Why not?” Runa said. “Maybe they’re just… just scavenging or something.”
“They’re soldiers,” Utgar said. He let his breath out slowly, feeling his muscles relax finally as he did so. “They don’t need to scavenge.”
“Well,” Runa said, “maybe they’re just… just…” — Utgar glanced sideways at her — “maybe they’re just flying,” she finished. “Maybe it doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad.”
Utgar’s smile slowly faded. Runa was only twelve, and had never gone far from her home. She didn’t know the soldiers and the world they came from as he did. Her optimism was a rare blessing in the Volcarren, but still…
“Their presence never means good,” Utgar told her gently. “They’re here for a reason.”
Runa was silent. Utgar glanced at her. “They’re soldiers,” he said. “They are the enemy.”
“They aren’t just soldiers,” Runa said, her eyes on the ground. “I mean… they’re people.”
“People, yes,” Utgar said. “but they are still the enemy. If they come between you and survival, you must know who they are.”
Runa didn’t reply.
They didn’t have far to go. The canyon ended in a rocky slope, which Utgar and Runa had to climb. They couldn’t fly. Something in the Volcarren air made their wings wilt, causing them to lose their feathers and turn black and leathery. Neither Utgar nor Runa had ever flown in their life.
Once out of the canyon, they set off across sand and loose rock, making for a nearby sea of high dunes. As they walked, Utgar scanned the horizon for the soldiers, but they appeared alone. The desert was dark; the only light came from the east. There, the clouds glimmered with the faint reflected light of a thousand far-off toxic fires and vents. That was the Wasteland, a broken terrain of poisonous fumes and hidden lava floes. Not even the soldiers could go there.
Utgar’s home soon came into view, hidden in the midst of several tall sand dunes. It didn’t look like a home. It looked like the skeleton of some large creature which had long since died there, the remains now almost entirely buried in sand. In fact, that is what it was. But in the Volcarren, where there was no lumber, and only rock and bone to build with, it was a better home than most.
Utgar felt his tense muscles relax again at the sight of it. He and Runa had dug it out themselves, excavating beneath the shell which made up most of the skeleton. It was cramped, but it kept them warm and sheltered during the nights.
“Go on in,” Utgar said to Runa as they approached the shell. “I’ll have one last look around.”
Runa nodded and pushed aside the hide which covered the entrance. Utgar, grabbing the rim of the shell, flung one leg onto it, and then the other. He stood, and walked to the middle, where the shell was highest, giving him a clear view across the tops of the dunes.
Everything was still. To the north and south, the desert stretched, an unending field of sand and dunes. To the west, it gave way to barren rock, and far beyond that, the undersides of the clouds were lit with a dull orange glow. That was Srung, fortress of the Empire, put there to guard the Volcarren. That was where the soldiers came from.
Utgar turned on the spot, trying to detect any movement, but there was none. They were alone.
Or were they?
A thin stream of sand fell down the side of the nearest dune, barely making a sound, but its motion obvious in the stillness. Utgar instantly fell flat on the shell, his eyes locked on the top of the dune. There was a shape up there, a black shadow, barely moving. It shifted, and more sand trickled down the dune.
Utgar watched the shape. It couldn’t be anything good. It could be a night predator, such as a Taklay. Spider-like, about as big as Utgar’s torso, they hunted with venom. He and Runa would have to kill it. The shape could also be a kyrie, a raider from a clan. He would take everything Utgar and Runa had if he could. Or the shape could be a soldier. In which case more were certainly nearby.
The shape moved. It rose, slowly, and Utgar saw that it was a kyrie. And judging by the spear it held, it was a soldier. But it seemed alone. Utgar saw no other shadows with it.
The soldier descended the dune, stumbling and tripping in the loose sand. It reached the bottom, righted itself, and Utgar was at last able to discern a face in the faint moonlight filtering through the clouds above.
The soldier was young, and one look at his face was enough to tell Utgar that he was lost. He turned on the spot, staring around himself, and saw the shell upon which Utgar lay. Utgar was perfectly still. To the soldier, he probably appeared as no more than the shadow of a lump of sand, or perhaps a few stones.
The soldier took a step towards the shell. It was impossible for him to know anyone lived there; he was probably just hoping to spend the night beneath it for shelter.
Turn around, Utgar thought. Please, turn around.
But the soldier didn’t turn. He advanced towards the shell. And then he stopped suddenly, and Utgar saw why. Below him, Runa had emerged from the shell, doubtless wondering why he hadn’t come in yet.
She saw the soldier and froze. They both stared at each other, neither aware that Utgar watched them, his entire body frozen. Then the soldier drew a short sword from his belt, and began advancing slowly.
Runa backed away. The soldier moved towards her, sword held ready, still walking slowly. A dull thump told Utgar that Runa had backed into the shell.
And then Utgar’s muscles unfroze. He launched himself off of the shell, directly on top of the soldier, who looked up, vague surprise his only reaction, before Utgar flattened him.
Utgar’s mind was perfectly clear. He was careful to grab the hand holding the sword and twist it, forcing the soldier to drop it. They rolled for a moment, sand flying everywhere, and then Utgar found the soldier’s neck and wrapped his arms around it. The soldier kicked and struggled, so Utgar wove his legs around those of the soldier, pinning him down.
Despite his age, the soldier was skilled. He managed to create a gap between his throat and Utgar’s arms, and worked his hand into it so that Utgar couldn’t choke him. He writhed and fought, wriggling out of every hold Utgar put him in. Finally, he slipped from Utgar’s grasp like a snake, leapt to his feet, and lunged for his sword, a short distance away.
He never got there. Utgar leapt after him, drawing from his hide jerkin a bone dagger. The dagger was at least as long as Utgar’s forearm, and was honed to a sharp point. Utgar collided with the soldier, found the place where two plates of armor overlapped, and slid the dagger neatly between them, up and into the soldier’s heart.
The soldier let out a screech of pain and staggered backwards from Utgar, collided with the shell, and fell to the sand. He scrabbled at his chest for a moment, coughing blood into the sand, and then Utgar saw his body tense. The soldier mouthed soundlessly for a moment, and then rolled over onto his back, completely still.