Breath of the Desert – an Empire of Dust Short Story – Part One

19th Jul 2022

Rob Burman

Today we’re kicking off an exciting serialisation of a short story inspired by the Empire of Dust. Written by D. R. Chester, who is currently working with Winged Hussar on an upcoming novel, Breath of the Desert will be released on the Mantic Blog over the next few days.

If you’d like a little more info on the background of the Empire of Dust, then check out this article here. But, without further ado, let’s take a look at part one of D. R. Chester’s short story.

Khalef couldn’t work out what was worse, the smell or… no, it was definitely the smell. He paused as one of the great brutes stomped past and hacked up a chunk of phlegm, spitting it into the dust where it was instantly consumed. The smell was making him feel sick and he’d just about had enough. He was sure the ogres smelt bad under usual conditions but in this heat they had entered an entire new world of stench. The heavy mix of body odour, greasy fur and rancid meat was all consuming.

What made it worse was that the usual breeze that made the coastal road bearable was strangely absent. The sea was unnaturally still, not even a wave or ripple showed on its glassy blue surface. It struck him that he couldn’t even detect a hint of brine. Still, he wouldn’t be surprised if the stench of the damnable ogres hadn’t killed his ability to smell anything ever again.

Khalef waved over one of his bodyguards he had brought with him from Khopt-remun and who knew the local language.

“Ask him how far,” he said gesturing to the ragged looking fisherman who lingered off to the side, avoiding the column of marching mercenary ogres. His man, Jareed, babbled to the villager who responded, unsatisfactorily it seemed, as the bodyguard smacked the fisherman on the side of his head and barked at him again. Khalef considered himself rather good with languages, but he’d never had the need or desire to learn many of the rural dialects of Ophidia and its surroundings. Out here on the isolated edges bordering the wastes, he couldn’t make out a single word of it.

“He said that we should be there by early evening,” Jareed reported.

“And why did you hit the man?” Khalef didn’t really care, he was just curious.

“He said he wouldn’t go back. I told him otherwise. Whatever attacked his village terrified him, almost as much as the ogres. And that thing isn’t helping.”

Khalef looked back at where Jareed pointed to the colossal shape of a giant lizard that brought up the rear of the column. A ‘Sla-shur’ the ogre had called it. Whether that was its name or what it actually was, he hadn’t a clue. The creature caught Khalef’s gaze and let out a low growl, which caused him to turn away quickly. He cursed his uncouth companions once more.

He’d struggled to communicate with the mercenaries from the start. He’d travelled widely in his youth. Well, exiled was probably the correct term, aftera dalliance with a general’s daughter. It hadn’t been a proper affair really, just some rather weak poetry and longing gazes, but it had been enough to get him sent to the far north where he’d had to make a study and report on the barbarous tribes of that region. Somehow the court seemed to think a journey over 30 years ago made him the perfect candidate to lead a mercenary army into the wastes to deal with unknown enemies on the edge of Ophidian territory. Thankfully the ogres were under the impression there was a simple mystery to solve. Whereas Khalef suspected he knew exactly why they were here, and he wasn’t happy about it.              

For the most part the attacks had been against fishing villages which would suggest the usual suspects: opportunistic slavers from Claw, Corsairs from the Three Kings, or the Twilight Kin from the cavernous shipyards of Leith. All were dangerous enemies, but unless their commanders were extremely incompetent there would be little chance of catching them. It was a fool’s errand and a complete waste of money. Even worse, it was a waste of his time, his patience and most of all, his breathable air. He had once known a physician who worked with the dead and wore an orange fruit bound with cloves on a chain about his neck to mask the smell. He wished more than anything that he’d had the foresight to acquire one for this trip. He had clearly done something wrong and been given this task as punishment. He wasn’t even a ranked soldier, but they soothed him with honeyed words to accept this ghastly business, while all the real soldiers were being held back and prepared for something much larger. Some disturbance in the east Khalef had heard. But that was rumour, and well above his station.

He collected his wits and set off again, in a hurry to keep pace with the muscular ogres that were almost twice his height. Even though they ambled rather than marched, with their long legs they still outpaced him and his human retainers by a goodly measure. He desperately wanted to get closer and use their bulk as shade from the blazing sun, but he kept his distance all the same. He’d just have to brave it a bit longer. If the fisherman was telling the truth, then they should be at the village by sundown, and he could finally get some shade and rest.

The setting sun shimmered as it drooped lazily toward the horizon. The heat rising off the desert made it appear like it was rolling away over the never-ending desert. The light reflected off the sand and sea alike, making them almost indistinguishable for a short while. Only the hazy image of the fishing village made a reference point as to where they were. The ramshackle buildings seemed to be a combination of driftwood and threadbare canvas, clearly built from the flotsam of shipwrecks. That anyone could eke out an existence in such a barren land always astounded him. That they would stay here and raise families was even more confounding.

He hurried around the ogres until he picked out the one he was looking for. It had a huge hammer strapped to its back with a red feather dangling from its ear. It was only through little fetishes like this that he’d managed to tell them apart. Khalef waved his arms to get its attention. It took far longer than he had hoped.

“This village attacked. Get tribe search enemy clues,” he stated slowly and loudly in the harsh common tongue. He didn’t like using it as made his throat hurt but it was the only language that anyone had managed to successfully converse with them in, and this particular brute was the only one who apparently understood. Khalef had his suspicions that they could all understand him, and that the ignorance was feigned. The ogre looked at him for a few moments before trudging off to find his leader and explain what Khalef expected.

Jareed approached, holding the nervous looking fisherman by the scruff of his neck.

“Tell him to describe the attackers,” Khalef ordered. The bodyguard and fisherman spoke to each other while Khalef waited patiently. As the fisherman spoke, his speech became increasingly erratic, and his eyes nervously darted toward the sandy wastes.

“He says they came at night. He only saw shapes in the dark though. He heard the screaming and ran to his boat.”

“Boat? Surely the pirates would have caught him?”

“No sir, he said they weren’t pirates.” Jareed paused for a moment and appeared to ask for clarification. The fisherman replied, while pointing frantically. “He said they came from the desert.” Despite the heat cooking his skin, Khalef felt a chill surge down his spine, and his hand went unconsciously to the object that rested in a leather satchel at his hip.

Don’t miss Part Two of Breath of the Desert on tomorrow’s blog! Also, the Empire of Dust are shipping from Mantic this week, and wave two will be going on pre-order this Friday.

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