© Copyright Ruth Ellen Parlour
Red Desert Rain
Sand and Storm
‘Found anything yet?’ asked Gabrielle. Sweat trickled slowly over her flaky brown skin. The pungent stench attacked her senses in waves as the unyielding sun burned the flesh off her neck and arms.
‘No,’ replied her brother Ossoldo who was chained beside her. His lank brown fringe flopped constantly over his almond shaped eyes and a rough beard grew grisly like a hedgehog that clung to his jaw. A heavy chain linked them all together. Rows of slaves were hammering at either side of them, in front, and behind; lined in deep trenches of crumbling rock. The rutted surface shifted in and out of Gabrielle’s consciousness like a mirage. The rhythmic thud mixed with the haze of the sun was hypnotic and hallucinations came like a dream, the colours intoxicating; dreams of things too far out of life.
A long metal trough sat behind them, permanently waiting. Minute pieces of mixed grey and brown rock sat in the rusting metal. They were digging for any valuable metal or mineral. What happened to the metal was no body’s business.
They fell quiet as a guard strolled along the top of the trench, kicking up dust granules in little clouds. His hardened glass eyes in a gargoyle complexion swore down on them. A whip and truncheon dangled from the belt of each guard; owning the prisoners with fear. Gabrielle stabbed harder at the rock, shooting the guard a hateful glare as he strolled away.
Gabrielle swallowed the dry air. Her mouth and lips were cracked and her head pounded furiously to the sound of the pickaxes.
In a burst of anger she attacked the wall, jarring her wrist which made her wince. Dust and rock crumbled down like a little waterfall. From within the wound a little glimmer caught her eye. Something was there and it wasn’t what they were looking for. She pecked at it again until a thin silver chain dangled out of the rock. Gabrielle touched it with her pulsing fingers; the chain was cold, bringing relief to her hot skin.
‘What’s that?’ asked Oz. She didn’t reply. He watched his sister as she chipped the rock, then brushed it with her fingers, before chipping it again. When a substantial groove was created she clasped the chain in her hand and pulled. The strain turned her scrunched-up face red. She put a foot on the wall for extra force as the chain dug into her fists.
‘Be careful or you’ll break it,’ Oz looked out for the guards before gently knocking the wall around the chain with his pickaxe to loosen it. With one last strain it gave way. Gabrielle fell on her bottom with a thud as a spray of dry rock sprinkled from the wall. Ignoring the pain, she examined her prize. Oz crouched over her. Gabrielle dusted the cold item cupped in her hands and brought it closer. Dangling from the end of the silver chain sat a teardrop shaped gemstone; shimmering the colour of sand. As Gabrielle moved it in her hands, the rays of light from the sun revealed an hourglass, accurately carved by a skilled eye. The polished stone bore no scratches and the chain was in perfect condition albeit clogged with dirt.
‘What is it?’ he asked. Before she could look more closely a guard began to wander over, his gaze swept over them as Oz and Gabrielle scrambled swiftly to their feet and retrieved their pickaxes. The pendant sat firmly clamped in Gabrielle’s damaged hand.
When the sun was in its decline the guards began filing people back in. Oz and Gabrielle were led, still clamped together, onto a raised walkway that ran down the centre of hundreds of trenches identical to theirs. The channels stretched far into the wasteland until they disappeared in a wavering line of heat. Stones and grit dug into the thickened soles of her bare feet.
A thick spiral of black clouds heaved and swelled around an epicentre rumbling endlessly over a giant fortress. Its thick walls were scorched black, towering over the people below. The main building was a wide tower that cast a lengthy shadow across the desert. A giant stonewall surrounded the buildings, topped with metal spikes, daring someone to challenge it.
A growl of thunder swept the sky overhead. The two beasts; lightning and thunder raged a persistent battle within the dense clouds.
‘It looks like another lightning storm,’ he announced. Gabrielle observed the burnt sky. The storm rarely ventured out of its comfortable cloud blanket, but no matter how violent the storm was – it never rained. People said that the cloud above the prison was filled with the angry souls of those who died within those dark walls, or those who were lost outside of it. Khartaz prison never failed to make Gabrielle feel insignificant in a Godless land.
She once prayed for rain to come and sooth her aching muscles and moisten the air. Gabrielle once prayed that the Gods were listening. But the rain never came.
It was feeding time.
Jess and two others were in the cage. They were people she hated. None of them spoke. They sat in a triangle, gazing out of the rusted iron bars preparing themselves mentally. Would the cage protect them? Claw and teeth marks dusted the rust.
They were submerged in enveloping darkness. Jess did not want to close her eyes; she needed to see what was coming. It smelled of blood thick in puddles, of damp and death.
Somewhere in the room a door opened, maybe two, screeching metal on metal and the room was filled with deep rumbling. They didn’t need eyes to see the snarling teeth and the bared claws. Jess shot back as one of them hammered into the cage. Faint light glinted on its hungry eyes and teeth. It fixed a gaze on the convict.
The creatures circled the cage, their bodies were emaciated but lithe. Their ribcages heaved in and out, their orange eyes gazed in at the fresh meat and their mouths dripped with thick saliva.
Jess could hear her pounding heart and feel it heavy against her chest as they waited in the dark. She tried to convince herself that the cage would hold and that they wouldn’t open the door.
With a crippling thud she saw the body land. Waking eyes, semiconscious, gazing at the cage as if to plead ‘let me in.’ The body was broken beyond function, it lay like a rag doll with porcelain eyes filmed in red.
Instantly the creatures pounced, snarling, gnashing, biting, tearing, laughing, living. It was a frenzy of tooth and claw as if this was the last time they’d feed. Blood chartered the floor, spattered the animals and trickled into the cage, following the grooves in the floor like a river on course. This blood was warm, it was treacherous, it was alive. Jess shuffled away. One prisoner cowered, hid his eyes and wept, while the other stared intoxicated.
The body never made a single sound, it could not, apart from the intense tearing. The ravenous animals were satisfied, slumping back into their dens. Bloody bones scattered the floor.
Jess let out the breath she was holding. She closed her mouth, not realising it hung open until she could taste the blood. The final warning was meant to terrify them. After the final warning came the final punishment. There was no recovering from that.
‘Let’s have a look,’ said Dustaen. Gabrielle turned her back to the dayroom and revealed the pendant from her pocket. Dusty’s pit black eyes gazed at it in awe.
‘Mother Morrae,’ she rasped. Her cat ears pricked forward and her nose wriggled. Jess looked up from her chair showing little sign of interest. Her skin was pasty and her eyes stared without seeing. Gabrielle couldn’t help but notice the twitches in the older woman’s face and the way her fists clenched tight.
‘Where did you find it?’ Dusty asked, keeping her voice quiet.
‘Out in the fields,’ Gabrielle replied.
‘What is it?’ Dusty asked. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders.
‘Angels wear pendants like that. The Gods give it to them,’ said Oz as he took it from Gabrielle and examined it.
‘Why would it be out in the desert?’ asked Gabrielle. Oz ran his thumb over the hour glass carving on the stone.
‘I have no idea. I bet it’s worth a lot of money though,’ he said.
‘Well give it back then,’ Gabrielle snatched it from his hand and clasped the stone firmly before stowing it away in her pocket.
‘Just don’t let anyone else know you’ve got it. Tarvia would rage less of a fire than some of the people in here,’ he looked around the day room cautiously but no one was paying attention to them in their own little corner. His gaze lingered on the two greater hybrids; an elephant and a ram, half human half animal but twice as dangerous as both. The hybrids and humans formed separate social groups but lesser hybrids, like Dusty, moved between the two without unrest.
‘The hour glass is the symbol of Khalak, God of the desert and time,’ said Oz.
‘I thought the desert was Godless,’ replied Gabrielle.
‘You would think that but it isn’t,’ he said. Although the appearance of the pendant was miraculous, Gabrielle was concerned about Jess. The older convict had lost her boyish vigour that brought her soul to life. She couldn’t offer comfort in here – comfort was weakness. ‘What did they do to you this time?’ Gabrielle asked.
‘Final warning,’ Jess had returned bearing no new scars or bruises to match all the others, this time the damage was internal. It was fear.
‘It worked for Shan,’ said Oz. One of the others who had the warning with Jess sat curled up in a corner crying quietly. Gabrielle felt her brow crease, annoyed that Ossoldo casually brushed away Jess’ torture.
‘So what did they actually do to you?’ She asked, trying to catch Jess’ distant gaze. The convict fixed Gabrielle with a sharp stare. She said nothing and suddenly Gabrielle didn’t want to know anymore. She could see the pain behind Jess’ dark eyes and recalled the moment she first met Jess in Khartaz prison. She had been full of life and rebellion but the long calendar cycles had been unkind to the veteran, grinding down her soul into a mindless drone. Gabrielle realised that if she stayed in the prison as long as Jess had, she would end up the same, or dead.
Gabrielle clutched the sandy stone in her pocket and felt it warm to her touch. Already she felt connected to the stone as if it was meant for her. It wasn’t by accident she found it; it didn’t belong to someone else. It couldn’t. It fed her strength and power, reigniting the passion for life she once had. Its weight felt warm in her hand, a warmth felt from inside. She let her mind and her heart grow still and felt inspiration rain over her like shattered crystal, better than any rain she had prayed for.
‘I’m going to escape from here,’ Gabrielle said, speaking so quietly her friends strained to hear.
‘Good luck with that, I’ll meet you at the Gate to the Next Life,’ Dusty spat. Gabrielle glared at the hybrid as her little triangle nose wiggled.
‘You wouldn’t make it, they’d just bring you back and punish you,’ Oz said lowering his voice. ‘Trust me,’ he nodded. Gabrielle ignored them. She caught Jess’ gaze and it was as if a fire had ignited behind her eyes. Jess wanted to escape as much as Gabrielle did. She was willing to risk everything on one chance.
The toilet bucket was full and Gabrielle was desperate to go. A cloud of flies hummed over the surface making it look alive. Once she tried to empty it herself by stretching up and pouring the slop through the barred window. Most of it ran down the inside wall and pooled on the floor. Then the guard marched in and beat her on the back with his truncheon. She never tried again.
On an evening she would sit and count all the bricks in the walls or she would look out the windows and count all the stars in the sky. She would walk along the cell doors and count all the bars, over and over again. There was three people sharing the cell; Jess and Dusty slept on the hard bunk, but there were beds enough for four and only one bucket. Jess’ lungs heaved with her heavy, wheezing breath. Dusty was as silent and still as the dead. After a year of living in these conditions the smell was not so bad but Gabrielle had grown up in the slums of Hypatia where no one had toilets. They shit under the sky in a ditch. Gabrielle would rather go back to that life than live between brick and bars; thirteen bars and three hundred and forty seven bricks to be precise.
The small window let in the faintest glimmer of white from the distant moon and stars. Inside a flickering glow emanated from the guard’s lantern on his wooden desk. Gabrielle felt the shape of the stone in her hand, the smooth round surface, the intricate carving like a hairline and the tiny bobbles of silver links on the chain. Even in the dark the stone still seemed to shimmer like a crystallised cat’s eye. What was the chance, she thought, that out of the thousands of convicts, out of the whole vastness of wasteland the stone appeared where she had been digging. It was as if the desert wanted her to have this pendant for a reason. She remembered what Oz had said about Khalak the desert God. Angels wear pendants like that.
Gabrielle stood up to the window and looked at the stars with the same awe as she did as a child. Growing up in the slums had felt Godless but not as much as living in prison. Gabrielle would struggle to name all twelve Gods. She had never sought their guidance or asked for their help until the day she asked for rain, but the rain never came. Now she had the pendant anything felt possible, even rain in the desert. She found herself wanting to say the evening prayer but didn’t know what it was.
‘Have you thought any more about your great plan?’ Dusty asked in the breakfast hall the next morning. Gabrielle shook her head, and shook off her friend’s bitterness. She had left her pendant hidden under the straw mattress in her cell.
Breakfast was being served as the convicts lined up at the canteen. A pile of chipped wooden bowls waited to be collected and filled with porridge. Inmates used to make imaginary bets as to how it would be served; too sloppy, too dry, burnt, or cold, either way it was rarely hot. Most of the convicts walked around in a daze, their eyes gummy with sleep, and their muscles still relaxed. They would all have to wake up soon.
‘Hey!’ Jess snapped as a hungry looking inmate squeezed into the queue before them. The man was totally ignorant to her warning, which infuriated her more. She approached the scrawny looking man, her muscles tensed like a coiled spring and grabbed the back of his shirt. With a powerful fist she threw him back. Surrounding inmates gazed up as the man clattered against a table, toppling a stool. The guards glanced over, hands reaching for their weapons. The man stared up at Jess with sorry written in his eyes. She gave him a stone stare before returning to her place in the queue. The guards relaxed and continued surveying the room with searchlight eyes.
‘Thanks Jessae,’ said Dusty, stifling a yawn. With a twitching eye Jess managed to retain her ‘It’s Jess,’ response to the mention of her title as Dustaen shuffled down the line, gazing at the porridge with bloodshot eyes. Gabrielle let herself smile, happy to see that the final punishment hadn’t extinguished Jess’ flame.
The four friends sat on a table together, checking the bench for missing planks or splintered patches before eating their breakfast. Dusty struggled to eat her food. With every spoonful she took, her face turned a greater shade of white, and when she had had enough she passed it onto her friends. Gabrielle had given up telling her to put weight on.
Gabrielle scooped up the morsels of cold oats in the cracked wooden bowl. She was so hungry all the time. She was more hungry now than she had ever been in the slums. Back then food was based on how many errands she ran before she earned enough for a meal, or whether Oz paid her back the money she leant him if the dog he betted on won the fight. She got used to eating sporadically. It was the regular measly portions that made her hungry, her body wanted more all the time.
As Gabrielle ate she contemplated her escape plan. The voices of her friend’s trivial conversation floated over her head when she noticed that Oz was watching her.
‘What?’ She asked.
‘Are you still thinking about sailing the sandy sea?’ he asked. ‘I can tell when you’re thinking and it always worries me when you do. I just want to know what you’re planning,’ he said, lowering his voice. Gabrielle ignored his jibe and scraped around in the bottom of her bowl.
‘The pendant has to mean something, I just can’t figure out what,’ she said.
‘Do you think the Gods are on your side after everything you’ve done? You committed the greatest sin…’ he whispered.
‘She deserved to die,’ she spat.
‘Is that what you tell yourself when you can’t sleep?’ he answered. Gabrielle’s anger bubbled inside her but she kept it back. She needed Oz to support her. They did everything together. She did not want to leave him behind.
‘If I find a way, will you come with me? Don’t you want to be somewhere else away from here? Back to the life we had?’ she asked. Jess was turning her bowl upside down and licking the spoon as Dusty tried to carve on the table with her blunted claws.
‘I’m not going back to the slums,’ said Oz.
‘Not the slums, somewhere else,’ replied Gabrielle. Oz took another mouthful of porridge and chewed it over.
‘Every Angel in history would boil their own teeth if they knew someone like you had their pendant and if the Gods have forgiven your sins then lets pray the Angel’s souls never find yours,’ he said. ‘And pray that the Gods are listening.’ Gabrielle knew that was the best answer she was going to get from him.
‘I didn’t realise you were a praying man,’ she said.
‘Only for money,’ he answered.
It was another long day working in the heat. She did her job, all the time waiting for the night to come.
The night was as cold as ever. The barred window let through welcoming air from outside. Everyone in the cellblock was sleeping, some peacefully, some not so. Gabrielle sat silently plotting. In her clasped hand sat the glossy stone now warm from her body heat and shimmering as it always did, feeding her inspiration and determination. Nothing around her registered apart from the pendant, images and voices floated around in her head. This is it, she thought as she fastened the pendant around her neck and hid the stone under her stiff tunic. She stood and approached the cell door.
Holding the bars she looked out into the empty hallway. A prison guard hunched over his desk, grating a small blade over the wooden surface. Gabrielle caught the sadistic glint in his eyes under the light of a single candle flame.
‘Hey,’ called Gabrielle. The guard slowly peered over the top of the browned newspaper, eyes stabbing her image.
‘I don’t know what they told you but I overheard that the night guard in this block was getting the sack ‘cause he can’t do the job properly, he’s not tough enough and lets the prisoners get away with murder. A bunny in a bear costume they said. Soft as muck,’ Gabrielle stated in her best conversation voice. She felt her hands grip tightly to the bars as her face pressed against the cold metal.
The guard paused before scraping his boots off the desk. Folding his newspaper he pushed the chair back, stood up, and casually meandered up to Gabrielle’s cell, eyes locked. His head leant to one side, arms folded whilst chewing contently on something that slopped around his wide mouth. It was clear Gabrielle’s words did not upset or anger him. The guard was broad and muscled, towering above her, just like the others. He glowered at her, trying to stare her down but she would not be intimidated. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, keeping the man’s gaze and with the most serious, innocent voice she could muster said,
‘I think you should tickle some balls and win some favours. You weren’t hired for your looks.” Grinning, Gabrielle stared into his solid grey eyes, ready for what was coming. There was a silent pause as neither won the glaring match.
Gabrielle did not avert her eyes. She took in every muscle movement. He grabbed his truncheon from around his belt and raised it swiftly above his head but Gabrielle moved before he could react. She lunged forward and clasped his thick wrist. Using the force of his strike and her whole body, she stepped back and down as strongly as she could, pulling the shocked guard forward, and slamming him head first into the iron bars. She smoothly whisked the truncheon out of his sweaty hands. Gabrielle saw the startled expression on his fat face moments before she swung the truncheon down hard on his head. She needed to make sure he wasn’t going to wake up any time soon.
The guard slowly slid down the dented bars and landed in a heap, blood trickling on the cold tile floor. Gabrielle rummaged around his belt, and with quick, harsh movements that jangled the rusting keys, she unlocked the door. It swung open into the corridor and somehow everything felt brighter. She could smell freedom. A convict in the opposite cell turned and blinked up at her but was too burdened with sleep to comprehend the situation. Gabrielle grabbed Jess by the shoulders and shook hard.
‘Wake up! Wake UP!’ she hissed.
‘Huh? Geroff. Is it first light?’ groaned Jess as she flailed her arms like a frightened butterfly. Gabrielle tore the flea infested blanket from over her. Dusty leaned over her top bunk, ears pricked.
‘What’s going on?’ she wondered. Jess rubbed her drowsy eyes before looking up. She noticed the guard on the floor and the door wide open. Energy sprung into her like a hunting dog as she leapt from her bed. She grabbed the guard and dragged his carcass into the cell, ready to lock the door behind them and pulled his trousers down for added humiliation. Gabrielle even caught her contemplating the toilet bucket.
‘We’re leaving,’ Gabrielle ordered, gazing up at the hybrid. Dusty blinked, not registering anything and not caring to. She rolled onto her side and pulled up the itchy blanket.
‘Wake me up at first light,’ she said.
Oz was laid, half asleep on his bed of stone, striving for a comfortable position. He stared at the ceiling, studying the knobbly bricks while drifting in and out of forbidden sleep, capturing moments of incoherent dreams flitting in and out of his mind. The blanket was cast aside as he relished the cold air soothing his burning skin. He turned his head and gazed out of the barred window at the faintest glimmer of stars far in the distance above the sand dunes and longed to be away from here, in a real bed, in a real house somewhere warm and green. It was everyone’s dream, so far gone and buried it was hard to recall. Oz knew with regret that he could have avoided capture if he’d wanted but he couldn’t let Gabrielle be imprisoned on her own.
As he drifted into a vague dream of a beautiful face he once loved his ears picked up a faint squeak. He only half perceived the noise and with agitation he drew himself out of sleep and strained his hearing through the buzz of silence. The noise he recognised as the cellblock door. The guard, he knew, would be asleep, grumbling quietly about his adulterous wife. He heard silent feet, padding down the hall, barefoot? One had shoes, one didn’t. Oz’s apprehension grew as his awareness stretched across the prison block. The only light came from the single candle dripping wax on the guard’s desk. He strained his eyes to the cell door to see three figures, one was a hybrid with silent pads on her feet. They came to Oz’s cell door and quietly they inserted a key into the lock. What could they want? Had they came to murder him in his sleep? No. They will be after one of his cellmates. They were always causing trouble. The pair of hands swiftly unlocked the door. He studied their dark forms with shock, recognising their shapes, the posture and movement. Oz jumped into action.
‘You’re actually doing it? Now? Tonight? All of you? I never thought you would!’ Oz gasped while trying to control the volume of his voice.
‘Yes we are. So shut up and come with us,’ Gabrielle hissed, letting a sneaky smile spread across her thin lips, like a spoilt child with her own way. Oz’s eyes widened, stumped, stumbling over his trail of thought.
‘H – How?’
‘Just trust us,’ Jess reassured, although it hardly did.
‘Trust you? You’re all mad. The desert will eat you up and send you to the Next Life,’ Oz hesitated, staring at the three of them. His lanky frame overlooked each head.
‘What…?’ One of Oz’s cellmates rolled over and blinked at them, half in a dream, rough hair sticking up like wire.
‘Go. Go now,’ Oz pushed the girls out the cell, heart racing, and left the block in a bustle of speedy tiptoes.
The night was bitter and silent with no light to guide them. They ran single file one hand on the left wall, other hand on the shoulder in front. The four hopeful convicts darted down the black streets of Khartaz prison. Dusty led the way, her sharp eyes easily finding a good path, and her keen ears picking up any sound. Tall brick walls towered above them, creating a claustrophobic labyrinth. A thick rotting stench seeped into their lungs as flea bitten rats scurried about for morsels of edible waste.
Dusty knew where the sewage chute was, after being made to deliver a body last week. She also knew there’d be guards overseeing disposals, even during the night. But it was their only chance of escape. The soles of Gabrielle’s bare feet felt numb on the hard ground. Oz was blessed with old work boots and the hybrid’s soft pads treaded with no sound.
Dusty slowed to a halt and peered round a corner. Two torches on posts illuminated the large cylindrical sewage chute, protected by two prison guards, looking like identical statues, the flames emphasised the hollows of their faces. Dusty examined them carefully, eyes flickering over each detail. They were equipped with only a truncheon each and wore no protective armour or clothing, but the size of both of them combined would prove a challenge to deal with. She relayed the information to her friends in a quiet whisper.
‘Is there any way we could sneak in behind them?’ asked Gabrielle.
‘Not without them noticing.’
‘What’s the plan then?’ Jess hissed, looking to Oz and Gabrielle, a fire was ignited in her which boosted Gabrielle’s own confidence. Dusty grew more apprehensive, chewing on her clipped claws. Gabrielle knew the hybrid was hiding her feelings about the sewage chute.
The two prison guards stood stiffly at watch, saying nothing. Black buildings surrounded the pipe, the smell of which no one could ever be acclimatized too. The only audible sounds were the crackling of the two torches mounted on poles, and a chilly breeze that whispered quietly between the buildings.
With a bloody thud one of the guards crumbled to the floor. The second guard looked over as he heard the chink of a brick scatter across the floor. Blood trickled from the unconscious man’s head. The remaining guard glanced down the narrow streets and went to grab the truncheon from around his belt.
As the guard neared his unconscious colleague a fierce voice bellowed,
‘Don’t move.’ Oz strode confidently in front of the guard, holding one of the long torches like a spear. The fire blazed as Oz waved it threateningly under the guard’s nose sending a streak of orange light across the darkness. The guard stood still, his eyes fixed in a glare at the tall convict, clasping the butt of his truncheon.
Jess snapped up the second torch and surrounded the guard. Dusty with cat-like reflexes and elegance whisked the truncheon from the unconscious guard. Her stumpy claws were unsheathed and her face was twisted into a provocative snarl. Oz and Jess thrust the torches close to the guard’s face, singeing his hair. The searing heat forced the man to step back, temporarily blinding him. Dusty tossed the truncheon unnoticed, which fell into the eager grasp of Gabrielle emerging from the shadows. Gleeful revenge contorted her smile. She had been waiting a long time to do this.
The guard acted first and raised his truncheon, knocking away the torches with a wide sweep but Gabrielle was there, delivering a powerful blow from behind with all the strength in her arms and body. The guard’s knees buckled and he fell to the floor in a silent lump.
‘Quickly then,’ Oz ordered as he threw the torch to the floor. The flames rolled dangerously close to one of the prison guards. Jess lifted the lid and Dusty gazed into the wide, airy tunnel.
‘You first,’ she said, turning to Jess. The older convict glared at the hybrid before shoving her off balance. With a high-pitched squeak Dusty tumbled down the chute. Oz jumped in, then Jess and as Gabrielle was closing the lid behind her, she caught a glimpse of flames licking the sleeve of a guard whose wits began flickering back to him.
The four escapees slid and spun down the dark slope at surprising speed. A few scrawny rats that were clawing their way along the steep slope scattered in fright. A thick layer of greasy slip increased their speed and an acrid stench lingered in the tunnel. They crashed against each other, tumbling into the pits of the desert. One of them caught a small furry creature, sending it squeaking painfully as it bounced down the tube after them.
The end of the chute was open and all four of them splattered into a swamp of debris from years of built up waste. This was the drop off point. The tube exit was almost blocked by the prison’s produce; old rags, broken objects, food, faeces, and questionable large lumps wrapped in string and material that one would rather leave wrapped. Flies buzzed and swarmed. Scavengers mauled at scraps and packages, any chance for a morsel of food. Gabrielle saw Dusty’s face as it scrunched, swelled, then opened and hurled out all her undigested food, adding to the swamp.
‘I can’t believe we just did that,’ spat Dusty, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
‘It’s not over yet,’ replied Oz as he tried to wade forward through the thick muck. ‘We have to move or we’ll get stuck and they probably know we’re missing by now,’ he ordered, pulling on his feet as they slurped in the waste.
‘Will they come after us? You’d think they’d just leave us for the vultures and cats,’ asked Gabrielle hoping for a clean escape.
‘I’m sure they’ll try,’ Oz replied.
‘How will they find us?’ Gabrielle asked.
‘Lizard birds,’ he answered, pulling himself through the swamp. Gabrielle felt a chill run down her spine. She had never seen a lizard bird but heard their shrieking morning and evening, a chilling substitute to a city’s bells.
‘Where will we go?’ asked Jess.
‘Just as far away as possible for now,’ replied Oz. ‘If we head South long enough we should reach the oasis. Then we’ll think about the rest when we come to it.’ After they struggled their way through the mire, emerging like monsters covered in filth and stinking, a steep sand dune invited them into the desert night.
Gabrielle gazed across desolate landscape of rolling dunes. In the dark it was picturesque, romantic even, but the pure silence affected her nerves. A multitude of glimmering stars speckled the sky, their bright light came as a blessing and the moon shimmered in its orbit, casting its solemn face onto the land. She felt perturbed by the stillness of the desert, in contrast to the rushing inside her.
They began to run down the dune, feet sinking into the soft sand as they ran, kicking the cool dust into waves of spray.
‘I feel…so tired…’ Dusty complained.
‘Just keep going,’ snapped Jess as they sprinted across the soft sand, stumbling and falling.
‘I thought it would‘ve been much harder to escape than that,’ said Gabrielle through gasps of breath.
‘We haven’t escaped yet. The desert is the real prison. We have no food, no water. It’ll be a miracle if any of us survive,’ explained Oz. Gabrielle growled as if their attempt had just been for nothing. It can’t be.
‘I told you we’re going to die!’ Dusty wailed. She collapsed in the sand, half on purpose, giving up, and lay there motionless.
‘Dusty, get up you idiot!’ Jess yelled, tugging fiercely on Dusty’s torn tunic.
‘You had to open your fat mouth!’ Gabrielle yelled, turning on her brother.
‘You were the one who asked!’
‘Just leave me, I’m holding you back,’ Dusty moaned.
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Jess growled as she hauled Dusty to her feet.
‘Mercy of the God’s, hurry up!’ Oz yelled. It was hard to see where everyone was in the darkness. Gabrielle looked to the next dune realising after that there would be another one, then another, then another… What had she done?
Gabrielle was tired, only fear pushed her forward as she ascended the dune. The sand stuck to the slime and dirt on her limbs, camouflaged but for the thick stench of waste that followed them. She suddenly realised that they would never get away. The dark shadow of the prison behind her sucked on her soul and called out for her to go back while the desert stretched before her was deadly and foreboding. Gabrielle’s eyes were brought to the dark sky above the prison; a chill ran down her spine as a beckoning cry filled the cold air.
All four of them ran in panic, same mind same fear. Gabrielle had hoped to have gotten further away before they were found to be missing. The soft sand made it difficult to gain any speed or balance. The owner of the cry appeared over the sand dune. It was a wild lizard bird, scanning the dunes for a succulent meal. Most active dawn and dusk, it was late hunting but would not hesitate to tear them apart. Gabrielle was stunned at its size as the creature’s dark form glided overhead. The bird’s leathery wings were fully spread and its beak hung open, revealing needle teeth, already tasting the blood of its victim. It turned and faced them head on. They all gazed at it in fright as it swooped close to the ground, catching the sand with the tips of its wings. The bird let out a screech as Oz and Gabrielle threw themselves to the ground.
A guttural roar erupted from her mouth where no words could form a warning to her friends. Jess was quick to react by diving and half burying herself in the sand. Gabrielle turned in time to catch the high-pitched scream of a hybrid, lifting her arms over her face as if it would help. Cold terror gripped the convict’s innards as the lizard bird plucked Dusty from the ground and sped up into the air.
‘Dusty!’ Jess yelled, half running after the bird, waving her arms, shouting a desperate pain and a thousand abuses. Gabrielle could only watch as Dusty’s rag-doll body dangled dangerously, screaming vainly, looking down for them to save her but there was nothing anyone could do. The bird floated over the dune and Dusty’s screams faded into the darkness and left them once again in silence.
Jess stumbled in the sand, cursing with fury. Dusty was gone.
‘Mother Morrae. What have we done?’ Oz put his hands to his face. Only now did Gabrielle realise the consequences of what they were doing and how mortal they all really were. ‘We’re all going to die,’ said Oz. Dusty was dead; Gabrielle could fall into despair and lose the only two people left in her life. She couldn’t be so weak; she needed to fight back.
‘Shut up and get a move on!’ Gabrielle grabbed her brother and pushed him. They all ran. With a single glance back, they picked up their feet and hauled themselves up the steep dune. When the summit of the next dune was reached Gabrielle looked over the eternal planes and felt lost. She could give up so easily, but fear urged her forward. Sand now covered her body, stuck to the dripping waste mixing now with cold sweat. Every muscle was tense, tired and shaking. Their mouths were dry and lungs stabbed with the constant quick intake of cold air. She wanted to lie down and sleep but when another call was heard, dread consumed her. Hope was forbidden.
A lizard bird appeared over a dune from the direction of the prison. This one was trained, an armed prison guard sat on its strong shoulders, steering it with a leather bridle. More would be on the way.
‘Keep running!’ yelled Gabrielle. They descended the dune in a cloud of sand. Jess tripped as she ran, and tumbled the rest of the way in a dizzy blur of sand and body.
Gabrielle saw something at the bottom of the dune but it was too late to change course. Oz skidded to a halt but his sister kept going with the momentum of the steep slope. She fell to the floor and was met with the sharp claws of a waiting desert tiger. The cat gazed at the convict, delight shone from its black eyes, and salivating it let out a rumbling growl. Its mottled fur, dull eyes and blunt teeth suggested the creature’s age. Plucking prisoners off the outskirts of the fields demonstrated its need to survive in a barren hunting ground. Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and held still, meeting the tiger’s eyes with an equally stern stare but inside she was trembling. She could not quell the beating of her heart or the rushing of blood in her ears. The cat’s nose twitched, catching the rotting smell emitting from Gabrielle. The cat’s brown fur veiled fatless ribs and old wounds, its long tail whipped the ground and its face contorted into a snarl. Every muscle coiled, waiting to strike.
Jess got to her feet at the bottom of the dune but the sand was wet and sticky. Her feet were submerged in unstable sand. She gazed at the thick, oily substance on her hands in wonder. It fastened to her feet. She growled furiously, if she did not get out now then she never would. She strived unsuccessfully to pull her feet from the sand while keeping balance as it slowly swallowed her, now riding up her shins.
Oz glanced around in a stricken panic. Pressure surrounded him from all sides: his sister and best friend were in danger, Dusty was gone and they were coming from Khartaz. Freedom was a selfish sprint away.
Gabrielle widened her stance and held out her arms, staring the predator in its eyes making herself look bigger than she was.
‘I’m fine keep going!’ Jess shouted back, knowing she was wrong as she waded backwards trying to reach dry ground. The sand now up to her knees.
The prison guard on his domesticated creature glided over the dune before doubling back towards Jess. He’d leave the tiger for Gabrielle. As the lizard bird hovered over the sinking convict she waved her arms in some sort of attempt to scare it but she was only met with claws that grappled and scratched her skin. The guard produced his truncheon and struck the convict hard across her back, stunning her. Jess collapsed, unconscious into the soggy sand.
They were being picked off one by one. There was no more hope. Oz looked on helplessly as the prison guard struggled to pull Jess from the quicksand. There would be more lizard birds taking flight from Khartaz to collect what remained. Oz clung to his mop of hair as he collapsed to his knees, and surveyed the futile havoc before him.
A clap of thunder erupted somewhere above them. The sky had clouded over like a dense blanket, circling around the prison. Lightning toiled inside the cloud dipping in and out in brilliant sheets. Gabrielle felt a drop of cold and wet splash her nose. She looked up as icy rain spilt from the black abyss, piercing their skin.
‘It’s raining,’ she whispered. ‘It’s raining!’ Gabrielle took relish, feeling the freezing water as it slipped over her skin, covering her in a healing veil, soothing her sore and aching muscles.
The desert cat became anxious at the unfamiliar sensation and darted across the sand. Confused and enraged, roaring through sharp teeth.
Gabrielle’s systems shut down. She blanked everything out. Nothing existed but herself, the sky and the rain. Her muscles gave up, like a puppet with its strings cut she collapsed onto her back, limbs spread wide in the sand, eyes closed, mouth open to catch the rain. It was such a beautiful, precious thing.
‘Gabrielle!’ Oz’s voice was shattered with hopelessness. He crawled across the sand towards his sister as the rain seared through them, tears stinging his eyes. Gabrielle’s breathing slowed and any tension in her body trickled into the damp sand. She wouldn’t be taken alive. She’d rather die fighting than go back to the fortress. Anything was better than prison, even the slums. She listened to the sounds around her; the rain, the thunder, the lightning, the frustrated cat snarling, the crying of the lizard bird, and her beloved brother as he called her name. Taking a deep breath she shut out all the sound from her mind and became still. She brought her hand to the cold stone around her neck and felt it warm up, not by her hand, but by something else.
Thank you for the rain, she thought. The Gods had listened and they sent the rain. She felt her heart call out. Her body was filled with an intense, yet comforting heat which made her feel restored. The stone in her hand shimmered silently with golden light, highlighting the sand timer. Then, like a small eruption, rays of gold light streamed from the pendant, stretching out into the darkness.
Gabrielle’s eyes flashed open and the sudden silence deafened her. The light from the pendant illuminated the area around her, touching everything with its soft glow. She stood up and surveyed the scene. Everything was still; the lizard bird hung unsupported in the air, the desert cat leaned back motionless on its haunches as if stuffed and white lightning scarred the sky like poor sewing on a garment. Gabrielle gazed at each person’s face: Jess, unconscious and peaceful, and Oz lost in despair. It was as silent as the undisturbed desert, like looking at a painting. The rain hung in a beaded curtain, the transparent drops reflecting back her face in the golden glow. She ran her hand through the air and caught the cold raindrops, creating a path-like window.
What do you require? She heard a voice whisper in her mind.
Freedom. She replied. The light gradually withdrew, subsiding into the depths of rolling colour in the stone, leaving it glittering. As the light faded, the hourglass gave one last flash of gold.
The noise returned and everything came crashing into life with all its ferocity and madness but only for a moment. The ground rumbled, shaking their feet and legs, before a tornado of sand erupted from the desert and spiralled into the air, carried by a subterranean gale. Gabrielle watched as the wild wind flowed like water, stretching upwards, sucking in the surrounding sand. The desert cat scattered. Gabrielle heard an unearthly roar that boomed through her body. It was a brutally deep, thunderous call, emitting from the epicentre of the vortex. Something was in there.
Two finger-like wings uncurled from within, shattering the tornado. Sand fluttered gently to the ground like a stardust shower, revealing a creature defiant of nature. It was a dragon; sandy, like the stone and greyed with age in dusty patches. It surveyed the scene with shimmering charcoal eyes. The great beast was nothing but bones, left over flaps of dead skin hung from the ancient and torn wings, its bony tail flicked out behind as it hung there motionless in the rain filled sky. Water leaked into the hollows of its skull, running in the cracks and whizzed through the gaps in its rib cage. No skin or muscle bound its old bones. This thing was the skeleton of a dragon but alive all the same.
‘Khalak,’ Gabrielle whispered. She could not draw her eyes away. The hairs on her soaked skin stood on end as she gazed in awe. Every bone told a story, every tear and every crack. This being was an immortal. Gabrielle’s heart swelled in excitement, hope and fear. The God tossed its head and roared like a thousand lions, reverberating the dire fear of a thousand victims. It beat its wings and rose into the air. The prison guard and his bird were knocked from the sky by the force of the wind as the dragon crashed into the sand with heavy feet, showering sand like a tidal wave.
Gabrielle stared longingly into the beast’s deep black eyes as it rose to full height. Its tale caressed the wet sand creating solid waves. Oz ran to her side and clasped her arm. She could feel his tension and fear, he wanted to pull her down and hide her from the monster, but all his power had trickled away with the rain. Both convicts stood as the beast leaned towards them.
It was time.
Khalak scooped them both up in its claws, bones creaking and clicking together. Neither sibling made a sound as the dragon spread its wings and flew with phoenix grace. Gabrielle watched the ground shrink before looking up at her saviour. She had done it. Khartaz was long gone. The dragon carried them away, wind breezing through its bones as the rain ceased, leaving everything behind but hope.
© Copyright Ruth Ellen Parlour
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