The darkness was like a solid object pressing in on Adlis from everywhere at once. It was a beast that had swallowed her, and now she was in its gut with nothing to do but wait for it to digest her. The only light came from the embers of the fire Kulgan had stomped out, and even those were quickly being claimed by the shadows. The zik maiden's breath started to come more quickly, and she knew her ears, despite not being able to see them, had turned white again.
He left us, she thought, staring out into the empty blackness. It's dangerous out here. He said so himself. And he left us alone! That... that... PUKEN!
She tried to tell herself that they weren't in any danger. After all, Kulgan still thought Arborough would offer him sanctuary when he got her there. He wouldn't leave them alone if there was any real danger. He had only said otherwise to keep her from wandering off... right?
The thought comforted her for a few seconds, but then she heard the telltale sound of a narrow, scaley body sliding over wood. Shrieking, she lashed out blindly, and by luck alone managed to strike the snake and send it flying off side of the wagon. Biting her tongue to keep from screaming again, she frantically began to run her hands around the wagon, searching for the jar of putrid sludge Kulgan had set out for them.
Adlis turned toward his voice, and the next moment she felt something she couldn't see be pressed into her hand by somebody she couldn't see. She almost screamed again, but then recognized the texture of Kulgan's clay pot and sucked in a frantic sigh of relief instead. Without another word, she yanked the cork out and upended the bottle, spilling all of its contents onto the ground. The rancid scent filled the air again, but this time all it smelled like to Adlis was safety.
She sat back down with a sigh. "Za? Are you okay?"
"Yes, Miss Adlis. I'm fine."
Adlis nodded into the darkness. "Thank Embin. I thought I was going to have a heart attack! Lucky thing you found that jar when you did."
The simmk's voice drifted out of nowhere, the one it belonged to invisible. "Well, beggin' your pardon, Miss Adlis, but it wasn't luck."
"Then how did you... oh."
It doesn't matter if it's day or night. It's all the same to him.
A scraping sound came from behind her, making her jump. She waited silently, tense, for a full minute, but when nothing pounced on her she relaxed a little. In all the commotion, she had completely lost her sense of direction. What direction was she facing right now? Was she looking toward the town? A rock? Open desert? Unlike her friend, she was completely blind, and she didn't like it at all.
"Za," she spoke up again, speaking slowly, "is there..."
"No, Miss Adlis, I don’t think there’s nothin’ out there.”
Adlis felt herself relax more at those words than anything she'd said to herself. If Za said there wasn't anything out there, than they were probably safe.
For a time, they sat together in the wagon in silence.
"Miss Adlis," Za spoke up a few minutes later, "I don't mean to go speakin' outta place, but are you sure it's a good idea to go provokin' Mr. Kulgan like you did?"
Adlis stiffened a little, and let out an unexpected burst of laughter. Za recoiled in surprise on the other side of the wagon, striking the side and making the entire thing shake.
"Well," she said, covering her mouth to stifle her giggling, "when you put it that way..."
"Beggin' your pardon, Miss Adlis, but what's so funny?"
Adlis took a deep breath and shook her head. "It's not funny. Not really. It's just... here I am, scared stiff of spiders and snakes, but I'm openly insulting the most dangerous thing here!"
What's gotten into me? she thought, wiping a tear of mirth from her eye. This really isn't funny. I'm going to get us both killed at this rate!
"Miss Adlis, I think—"
"I'm sorry, Za. I really am."
"No, Miss Adlis, I—"
"I'll stop, I promise. Just..."
Before she could finish her sentence, a gloved hand clamped itself over her mouth. Adlis froze, her ears immediately turning white again, and was about to scream and lash out when...
"Miss Adlis, it's me!" Za hissed into her ear. "Be quiet! I think... I think something's out there."
Adlis went still as a corpse, straining her ears to catch what Za had heard. There was nothing but the gentle breeze blowing between the standing stones. Za had better ears than her, though. Maybe he'd heard something she couldn't. Then again, maybe he had smelled—
If Za hadn't had his hand over Adlis' mouth, she would have gasped. He was right. There was something out there!
Pulling Za's hand away, her own hands trembling, she asked, "Is it Kulgan?"
She still couldn't see him, but she felt it when he shook his head. "I don't think so. It's comin' from the wrong way."
The sound came again, and Adlis shuddered. It was... she couldn't think of what it sounded like. It almost sounded like sand being blown by the wind, skittering across more sand. If Za hadn't pointed it out, she wouldn't have noticed it at all.
"What is it?" she whispered. "Can you see... can you tell what it is?"
Za hesitated, and then said, "No. It- It's out there. I can it hear movin' around, but... I don't know where it is, or how big it is, or anythin'."
"Okay... okay, all right, it's okay." Adlis' breaths were coming so quickly now she was almost gasping. "Just stay calm. We'll be okay."
The fact that she was talking more to herself than Za wasn't lost on her.
"Kulgan will be back soon," she went on. "Just stay calm, and he'll—"
"Miss Adlis, I think it's comin' closer!"
Sure enough, the sounds were louder now. Closer. Adlis reached out and grabbed Za by the arm, squeezing him— not because she thought he would keep her safe, but because she needed to hold onto something.
"Miss Adlis, that hurts!"
With a start, Adlis realized how hard she was squeezing Za's arm. She was practically wringing it like a rag. He gasped audibly in relief when she released him, stumbling over to his side of the wagon again. She bit her lip. The poor boy was probably going to have a handprint-shaped bruise on his arm tomorrow.
Assuming they were still alive by then.
Whatever was making the noises was even closer now. It was coming so regularly that it almost seemed like someone had a broom and was sweeping the sand around. And Adlis still couldn't see a d’yargo thing.
"Can you make anything out about it?" she whispered.
"Mm-mm," Za answered. He was shaking so hard now that Adlis could feel it in the boards she sat on. "I can hear it, but it's like there's nothin' out there, Miss Adlis!"
What could possibly do that, she wondered? She knew about predators that could change the colors of their skins to blend in with their surroundings, but a trick like that wouldn't work on a simmk, would it? Turning invisible shouldn't have any effect on a creature with no eyes. Za should have been able to echolocate it just by the sounds it was making, or its scent, or something!
"We need a light," she decided, still hunkered down by the edge of the wagon.
"Miss Adlis, all that'll do is draw it closer!"
She shook her head. "No, it's already here. You said so yourself."
"But you'll just be makin' it easier for it to see!"
"I don't care. I don't care!" she said, covering her ears to block out the sound. "I can't just sit here in the darkness like this while it stalks us. I have to see it!"
"A fire might even scare it away, Za."
She could still hear him whimpering, but when he didn't voice an objection she took that as agreement. Now she just needed to figure out how to start a fire. Za still had his flint and tinder. The wagon was made of wood, but she didn't want to risk tearing it apart more than Kulgan already had. The only other wood around was what they’d used for their campfire earlier. That was on the ground, though, at least five feet away from the wagon. Five feet closer to whatever was out there.
That settled it. They needed that wood. That only left the question of how to get it...
"Za," she whispered, "I need to do something for me."
"W- What's that, Miss Adlis?"
"Hop out of the wagon and bring back one of the planks from the fire. A longer one, one we can use as a torch."
Even though she couldn't see him, Adlis knew that she had shocked him because he stopped trembling, and the wagon stopped shaking.
"Miss Adlis, I ain't meanin' no disrespect, but have you lost your mind?"
That's the second time he’s asked me that, she thought wryly. That thought was chased from her head, though, when the nearby sands shifted again. If she wasn't mistaken, the sound was coming from even closer now.
"I can't see in the darkness, Za," she insisted. "You can. Just hop down, grab a stick, and then run back!"
"But what about—"
"You'll be fine, Za. Just move fast!"
Guilt gnawed at her from inside, and she half expected —hoped, even— that Za would refuse to do it. She wouldn't blame him. She needed him to do this, though. He was the only one who could, right?
Instead, the simmk did as he was told. She could feel him rise from his seat on the other side of the wagon and tentatively make his way across. His coat brushed her arm.
"Miss Adlis, I... I don't know if I can. I'm too scared!"
Reaching up, she took his arm in her hand and gave him a comforting, yet gentle, squeeze.
"I know you can. I believe in you, Za!"
Za didn't move for a long minute. Then he took a deep breath and, all at once, leaped over the edge of the wagon. She could hear his boots thumping against the stones, and his frantic breathing. He stopped for a second while he rummaged through the cooling remains of Kulgan's fire, and then came sprinting back to the wagon at full speed. He threw himself forward, landing inside and rolling so that he collided with the far wall hard enough to nearly tip the entire thing over. Adlis yelped and scrabbled for something to grab onto, but then the wagon fell back onto all four wheels with a thump and the groaning complaint of weakened axles.
"I... I did it, Miss Adlis!" Za said, gasping for breath despite having only run ten feet. She felt something tap her hand, and reached out and grabbed the stick. "I got it for ya!"
"Good job, Za," she said, trying to sound properly jovial. Inside, all she could feel was even more fear. Za hadn't exactly been quiet during his dash across camp. What if whatever had been stalking them had heard him? What if it was drawing even closer?
As if to confirm her anxiety, she heard the sands shift again.
"Get out your flint and tinder," she said before panic could set in again. "Light the tip of the board like a torch, but be careful not to set the wagon on fire too."
She heard him moving around, setting the plank in place, and then the rhythmic tk, tk, tk of him striking flint against tinder. A few sparks danced in the darkness, disappearing just as quickly as they appeared, and then...
"There!" Za exclaimed just as the tip of the plank caught fire. He didn't waste any time in grabbing the other end and raising it up before the wagon boards underneath it caught flame too. The light was so sudden and such a contrast to the pitch blackness before that Adlis had to close her eyes or else be blinded. When she opened them again a few seconds later, though, she didn't feel like she had ever seen a sight more comforting than her simmk friend sitting on his knees in front of her, his coat all bunched up around him.
"Thank you, Za," she said, reaching out for the torch. Za handed it to her, and she hesitated.
Do I really want to see what's out there? she wondered. If it is a predator hunting us... would it be better to see it coming, or just let it take us by surprise?
Za couldn't sense it, though. What made her think she would be able to see it? What if there wasn't even anything out there? Maybe it was just the wind blowing the sand around, and Za's imagination had gotten the better of him. What else could explain it? Suddenly, looking at Za right in his painted eyes, she began to feel very silly. And here she had just started to think that she—
The sound was louder this time. Closer. A chill ran down Adlis' spine, and she spun around, nearly striking Za with the torch, and saw...
"What?" she gasped, stumbling back a step. She swung the torch around, lighting up every corner of the campsite, but there was nothing there. Even the snakes had retreated inside their crags, waiting for the sun to rise again.
"I told you, Miss Adlis," Za said from the back of the wagon. "There ain't nothin' out there."
"That's impossible," she whispered. "There was something there. We both heard it!. Maybe... maybe it's underground?"
She tried to tell herself that maybe the fire had scared it off after all, but she swore she could feel wicked, invisible eyes watching her from the darkness. She lowered the torch, careful not to let it touch the wagon, and brushed her fingers across one of her ears. If something was out there, would her ears attract it? The bright colors might catch its attention, making her look more appetizing than her simmk companion. She cringed and covered one with her free hand. The Pit take the cursed things. If she'd had a knife, she may have been tempted to just cut them off then and there!
Adlis blinked. Had she just... no, that was impossible. Holding her breath, she stepped to the side of the wagon again and leaned out over the edge, holding the torch in front of her.
"What in Embin's name?" she whispered.
The sand was moving. It was difficult to see in the darkness, so much so that she almost decided it was a trick of the torchlight, but no. It was really moving. The strangest part was that there didn't seem to be anything underneath it, like a worm or a gopher, the sand was just... moving. As if it were water flowing through a stream.
"Za," Adlis said without turning around, making the simmk jump again, "the sand is moving on its own. What does that mean?"
"I- I dunno, Miss Adlis. Honest, I don't!"
That explains why he couldn't sense it, she thought while the sands made swirling patterns right on the edge of the campsite. He couldn't see the ground moving, he just heard it.
"Well, just stay calm," she said, trying to take her own advice. "Whatever it is, it hasn't hurt us yet. Maybe it just—"
A shadowy form rose up out of the sand.
Adlis gasped and recoiled, falling backwards onto her rump and nearly setting the wagon on fire again, and lost sight of the creature in the flickering light. She thrust the torch out in front of her again. The thing, whatever it was, was still there, rising up out of the sands like a pool of water. The feeble light provided by the flames were barely enough to illuminate it, and Adlis wasn't able to see the entire thing at once, but it was big. At least seven feet tall, with arms like tree trunks, and bumps on its head that Adlis got the distinct feeling were horns. It didn't make a sound, apart from the sand it sent skittering across the stones.
"Za, do you... are you seeing this?"
Za's frantic breathing was the only answer she got, and the only one she needed.
Sluggishly, the creature raised one foot and set it on the stones.
It took another step into the campsite. It was moving slowly, like it was tired or confused, but still making a straight line for the wagon. Za wasn't the only one hyperventilating now. This was what she had been afraid of. With Kulgan gone, some Pit born monster had decided to make them its prey. Easy prey too, since all they had to defend themselves was a torch. Another step. The only sound it made was its strange, crunching footsteps. Not a grunt or a growl came from its mouth. Adlis couldn't even hear it breathing.
I'm going to die here. I'm going to die, and there's nothing I can do about it.
I'm going to die without ever seeing Father again. I'll never get to tell him...
... that I'm sorry for running away.
The beast was looming over the wagon now, its shadow blotting out even the moon and stars. It stopped and looked down at them. By the dim light of her torch, Adlis was finally able to make out some details about it. It was every bit as big as she'd thought, with arms wrapped in muscles thick enough to crush rocks. Its face was hard and angular, glaring down at the two travelers with the pitiless eyes of a hungry predator. The face was almost human, if not for the jagged teeth protruding from its lips and the horns that rose from its forehead and curled so that their tips came to just below its ears. And its skin... it was pale yellow and grainy, and it even sparkled a bit in the torchlight, almost as if…
As if it were made of sand.
"Za, do something!" she shrieked. The simmk was too busy cowering in the corner to come to her rescue, though.
The monster raised its massive, claw-tipped hand...
"KULGAN!" Adlis screamed at the top of her lungs.
It reached for her— and then its head exploded.
Adlis froze in shock as a shower of sand poured down on her, and then she screamed again.
"Quit your caterwauling," a familiar voice snapped. Something thumped down into the wagon beside her. "And put that torch out before you set the wagon on fire."
Adlis blinked, her brain still struggling to catch up to what was happening. "Kulgan?"
"Who'd you think?"
She looked up and saw the Ranger standing above her, a bag in each hand. The one in his left he dropped, and took the other one in both hands. A clattering sound came from inside it as he swung it up over his shoulder. When she didn't move, he kicked the torch out of her hand, and then kicked it again while it was in midair so that it flew out of the wagon. The flames danced across the campsite, and by its light Adlis saw...
"It's getting back up!" she shrieked.
Even without its head, the beast was indeed climbing back to its feet. A lump began to grow from its neck, getting larger and larger until had it a brand new head.
"Relax," Kulgan said, sounding entirely uninterested. "It's just a sandgoyle."
Before she could ask what on Haroz a sandgoyle was, Kulgan swung the bag with a grunt, destroying the monster's head a second time. Its body stumbled forward, as if merely caught off guard, and then collapsed. When it hit the ground, it crumbled into a pile of sand.
"Right, time to go," Kulgan said, stepping around her and hopping into the driver's seat. "Hang on!"
He cracked the reins, and the kashnilas both took off at a quick trot, leaving the campsite and the sand monster behind. Adlis, still gasping for breath, turned to see the creature get up yet again, the sand it was made of joining back together to reform its body, but by now they were too far away for it to catch up. It watched them with impassive eyes until it disappeared in the desert night.
"What was that?" she demanded, spinning around to confront their guide, who didn't even have the decency to appear shocked by the appearance of such an unnatural creature.
"I told you, it was a sandgoyle," he said without turning around. "They're common enough around these parts."
"Common?" Adlis echoed. "That creature was a lot of things, but common is not one of them!"
He flicked the reins again. "That's because you're a pampered little puff who’s never set foot out her front door."
For the first time in what felt like hours, her ears darkened from their frightened shade of white to a vivid yellow. "Pampered puff, indeed! How could you leave us alone with that thing skulking around the camp?"
"Because I told you exactly what to do," he shot back. "Stay in the wagon. Don't make any noise. Keep it dark. Sandgoyles are stupid. If you had done what I'd said, it wouldn't have even known you were there."
Adlis blinked. "You mean..."
"Exactly. If you hadn't started screaming like banshees and lighting torches, you would have been just fine. Luckily, they're pretty easy to take care of. Pitting hard to kill, but just fill a bag with rocks, give 'em a few good whacks, and they'll fall apart."
"I... I... I still can't believe that you just left us alone!"
"Would you believe it if I said I found you a hat?"
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, toward the second bag he had dropped beside her. Adlis had completely forgotten about it. Tugging it open, she reached inside— and pulled out a sun hat. It was woven from palewheat stalks, but had a scarlet ribbon tied around it. More importantly, the hat was large, and the brim was wide. Perfect for hiding her treacherous ears. She didn't waste any time in putting it on. A second glance revealed a wide assortment of other supplies they were going to need. Food, first aid, canteens full of water.
"These aren't civilized lands," Kulgan said, bringing her attention back to him. "There's not a single place I could leave you where you'd be safe. I just have to find a place that's less dangerous than the others and make do."
Unexpectedly, a nail of guilt stabbed at her heart, and she set the bag back on the floor.
"Oh," she said softly. "I- I'm sorry."
Suddenly, she felt like crying.
"Your adrenaline is wearing off," Kulgan noted, still without even looking at her. "Just lie down and go to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning."
Adlis nodded. Now that he mentioned it, she did feel exhausted, both physically and emotionally. A nap sounded perfect. A long, long nap.
"Za," she said, already lying down, "are you all right?"
"I think so, Miss Adlis. Just a little scared."
The zik maiden yawned and nodded. "Me too, Za. Me too."
Then, using the fur on her arm as a pillow, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.
NEXT TIME: Well, that was fun. I think that’s enough excitement for one book, don’t you? Come back next week, when Kulgan and Adlis confess their love while sipping rootbeer floats in Candy Land. Za becomes king of the marshmallow fellows, and all is well forever and ever… pffffft!