The wagon moved as quickly as the Ro’ pulling it would allow, while the sands blew fierce. Storm, first nothing but a dusting, was now upon them in true. Rising up until it seemed higher than any natural cloud, the sandstorm had begun blocking the road from all but the keenest eyes. Waves of dust that might rival even the City of the Emperor’s distant walls.
For hours now, there had been no respite. Still, the wagon carried onward: determined to continue its journey forward.
“Do you know where we are?” Trader Welsh shouted ahead to the guide, pushing out through the cover of the wagon to face the storm. For a brief moment, he had to resist to the urge to go back into hiding.
“I know where we are!”
“We need to stop, then! Any longer, and at this rate, we’ll be going in circles!”
“No, we can’t stop!” Pulling their cloak and hood apart, one calloused hand still on the reins, his guide turned to yell back. “I’ve changed our course!”
“We were two days ride from the City, just yesterday!” Welsh moved up, pulling the cover of the wagon closed behind him. “We can’t afford to turn that into another two by heading back! These supplies were due a week ago!”
“We won’t be turning back!” The man shouted back. “But we can’t stop here, either!”
“Too risky! This area isn’t as safe as it used to be!” Turning the Ro’ left, the Guide cracked the leather, roughly. They seemed to react to something unheard, unseen, head turning in a specific direction to peer out into the haze of violent sand. “Something’s trailing us now! If we slow, it’ll catch up!”
“What?” Welsh took a seat beside them, almost falling as rocks kicked beneath the wheels. His hands gripped the railing. “Monster, or Construct?”
“Could be one, could be both.” The Guide caught them, steady hand on their shoulder helping them back upright. Somehow, they seemed to ride the rocky jostles effortlessly. “Doesn’t matter though, it’s not friendly.”
“How can you tell?”
“Call it intuition.” Reaching back, they tapped the grip of a weapon slung over their shoulder. “Worst case, I’ll deal with it.”
“And if you can’t?” Welsh swallowed nervousness, as he peered out into the swirling dust.
“Don’t worry.” The guide reassured him. “We’re almost where we need to be-” At that, the wagon bucked, wildly ripping a trail onto two wheels, before setting back down into motion with a heavy impact that left Welsh’s teeth rattling. They hadn’t stopped, or broken down (thank the light) but they were dragging a bit more as the beast hauling them bellowed in frustration.
“I thought we were still a ways off from the City?” Welsh questioned, sand ahead all but blinding. Past ten paces, there was nothing but a flowing row infinite grains of dust. Reaching into his pocket, he felt for the parchment he knew would be there, pulling it free. “Last I knew, there weren’t any refuges out this way, either.”
“You’re right, on both counts.” The guide answered. “But I know a place we can stop and rest. Should be safe, if only for a short while.”
“Really?” Welsh pulled out a crumpled paper, squinting at the ink beneath a single lantern’s light overhead as her peered it over for what must have been a tenth time in an hour. “There isn’t anything on the map.”
“Well, you didn’t hire the map!” Pulling the reins again, the Guide steered them past a massive boulder, Ro’ bucking wildly until they were past it. “Hang on!”
“Gods!” Welsh almost lost the map, as he latched onto and handhold he could find, coughing from the sand that had slipped past the cloth around his face. “Where did that come from?”
“Long as it doesn’t follow us, I could care less.”
“Follow us? How could it-” Another rough turn, this time to avoid a patch of smaller stone, cut Welsh off early. His cargo shifted, ropes creaking under strain as contents shook.
“You’d be surprised!” The guide shouted, riding up to snap the reins back down. “Almost anything can happen, around here!”
Beside the wagon, Welsh thought he could see figures running. Thin, streamlined bodies, not of flesh but, stone. He felt the horrible grip of nausea affix itself to the pit of his stomach. Not monsters, then. No, these were worse. Soulless, mechanical, terrors: Constructs. The Dwarven threat which held the Empire at a standstill for centuries, which endlessly spilled out of the Eastern Mountains. Welsh watched as they moved silently, swiftly. Forms in perfect rhythm, quickly advancing despite the wagon’s speed. Alien sculptures, in a terrible mimicry of life.
Then, the storm swept back in around them, blocking them from sight.
“Constructs! They’re gaining on us.” He choked out. “Not even twenty paces. What do we do?”
“Don’t worry!” His guide cracked the reins again, ignoring the Ro’s bellow of frustration, as it increased its speed. “We’re almost there!”
Out among the dust and storms, sounds began to echo. Muffled as they were, caught and pulled away by the winds, Welsh could hear them clearly. Of conflict, of battle, of shouts that came from something not made by voice- but rock and glass. Impacts, and rippled of force through the sand.
The storm pitched: howling gusts blocking out all noise as the wagon’s frame shook from the forces. Then, suddenly, the wheels began to slow.
“We’ve made it!” One final crack of the reins brought them out of the storm, night sky appearing at once. “We’re here.” The guide whispered, in the sudden absence of wind.
He was right, Welsh recognized. As the wagon came to a stop, Ro’ panting heavily, the storm seemed to carry on, but behind them. As if pushed away by unseen currents to part a clearing, circled within a large ring of towering stones. Like the eye of a storm, they’d come to find a space that was almost… peaceful.
“Where are we?” Welsh asked, turning to confirm the churning dust and wind, not ten paces behind him. Its thick texture, almost that of a wall, or smoke held behind glass.
“Hard to explain, exactly.” The guide replied. “But nothing can follow us here.”
“Those stones… Are those… statues?” Welsh asked, peering at the ring of large stones. Each carved out to a shape most strange. Not quite of men, but not quite of beast. He couldn’t help but stare. “Such intricate work.”
“Aye.” His guide replied, as they dropped down beside the tired animal, reaching for a bag of feed. “Best to leave them be, though.”
“What of the…” Welsh swallowed the lump in his throat as he turned back towards the storm. “Those things, chasing the wagons?”
“You don’t need to worry.”
“I do, though.” Above, Welsh looked up to see stars, as they emerged from the swirling mass of sand and dust. Squinting, he could fix their direction. It seemed right. “I never imagined to see those so close to the City.”
“Eastern Front is suffering, lately.” The guide murmured. “Still, no Construct is going to get here. You have my word.” Stepping away from the Ro’ the Guide began marching forward, towards the only other piece of the clearing. Welsh glanced back towards the wagon, before turning to followed them.
Ahead, in the center of the ring of stones was… Green.
It was a tree, Welsh realized.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?”
Twice Welsh’s height and covered in thick leaves the branches swayed in the twisting wind. Deep roots spread out, like a spider web, diving deep into the mound of sand below. Underneath them, though, Welsh thought he could see the shadow of something more. Something deep, dark, and foreboding, that left the goosebumps along his arms.
“Is it… covering something?”
“Aye.” Pulling down his hood and wrapping cloth, the guide’s dark skin caught the night sky’s eerie light. “Marks a grave, among other things.”
“Depends on who you ask.” The guide replied, staring at the canopy. “Not even two years ago, over a hundred souls were lost, right here. Blood, fire… the whole mess and more.”
“A battle?” Welsh stared at the tree as well. Between the leaves, he could spot the stars, ever so briefly, as the wind picked up.
“You could call it that.” For a moment, the guide seemed almost lost in thought, expression just before a frown. “I wouldn’t, though.”
The wind picked up again, and Welsh could swear he saw something move, among the branches.
“We’ll be staying for the night. Just until the storm passes” Almost a shout, as if so that someone else might hear, the guide bowed low, towards the tree. “You have my thanks.”
Welsh waited, uncertain at the sudden announcement. It had given him a fright, but now he wasn’t sure what to make of things. The guide rose back up, turning to him, not the tree.
“I… you also have my thanks.” Welsh said, reluctantly facing the tree. “Lovely place.” He added.
It seemed the right thing to do, as the guide nodded once, appreciatively, before they turned and motioned towards the wagon.
“I’ll keep watch. You should check the cargo. Every bit counts, these days.” His guide nodded to the ropes and cloth, now bulging in several places. Clearly, strained by the rough trip. Heavy boxes of storage rune crystals, each packed and insulated as carefully as could be managed on a budget. Each, worth their weight in Gold.
“I… see.” Welsh replied. “You’re certain you won’t need help?”
“Aye." The guide nodded again. “Go on.”
Welsh looked to the tree once more, before leaving the guide beside it and heading back to the wagon.
Climbing up, past the tired Ro’ and leather restraints, he stopped- just before pulling back the cover to the cabin. Beyond that cloth, a bedroll waited, almost buried among cargo and other lesser items of value. It wasn’t a huge haul, but Welsh had felt it was a worthy one, especially for the speed the guide had promised them. Peering back outside, though, Welsh watched the man.
His guide had remained standing beside the tree. Posture relaxed, weapon still slung on his broad shoulders, they seemed almost oblivious to their surroundings- though Welsh knew such looks could be deceiving. Especially, in these parts of the world, where the dangers that threatened mankind were all but ever-present.
Still… He was a odd fellow, surely. Though he was too far away to be sure, Welsh could almost swear the man was speaking to the tree.
Another trader, Stefano, had sent him with a letter of recommendation, directly. An Adventurer most reliable and trustworthy, it had said. One of several letters, actually. Considering how few hadn’t folded into the unified Merchant’s Guild these days, Welsh had accepted the conditions and the contract terms easily enough. Truly, he couldn’t deny guide had been steady all through their journey, up until now, but…
Eyeing the carved stones about the clearing, Welsh felt a shiver run along his spine.
Those hadn’t moved… had they? It almost seemed there were more of them, now. Some with weapons, some without…
Welsh shook his head as he pulled the wagon cover behind him, laying down to rest. No, he would trust the guide. If it was safe, it was safe. That was what he had paid the man for, and he’d no reason to stop trusting.
He closed his eyes.
It felt like only moments later the guide was calling to him once again.
“It’s time to go.” From outside the wagon, Welsh heard and felt the frame shift, as a heavy weight sat back down upon the coach’s seat. “Storm’s passed us by.”
“Already?” Welsh asked, surprised. “How long as it been?”
“Long enough.” Came the reply. “It’s morning.”
“Morning? Truly?” Slipping tired eyes back outside the cloth cover, Welsh was confronted with a bright orange sunrise, creeping up upon a flat of dust and sand for miles. “I’ll be.” Only the circle of carved stones and the tree, broke up the landscape. ”Those things chasing us… they left on their own?”
“No.” The guide replied. “No, but we won’t be worrying about their lot anymore.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Call it… a kind of faith.”
“I see.” Welsh lied, warily looking out over the dusty plains. There was truly nothing else, for as far as his eyes could see. Just the lone tree, encircled by the stone statues. “This seems a sad place, for faith.” He said, quietly. “Truly sad.”
“Aye.” His guide replied, solemn as they brought the reins down, to start the Ro’ anew. “I hope that one day, it won’t be.”
As they left, looking back Welsh could have sworn that, among all the green, he saw the faintest hint of blue. Blue like the sky, before all the dust, the droughts, and the sun. Just for an instant.
Then, it was gone.