It is said amongst caravan drivers in Athas that time is measured by the squeaking wheel. In the last four days of working as a caravan guard, you found no disagreement. There was little talking, so focused were the members on their very survival. The slaves pulling the wagons did not vocalize the pain that shown so clearly in their eyes, fearing the lash as a response to what would most certainly have been perceived as complaint. That left the wind and the high pitch keening of the caravan wheels as they ground through the fine sand stuck in their axles.
You came to pity the slaves. They worked harder than you. They risked more than you. And they knew naught about what they hauled or why they moved it. If they died on the journey, they wouldn’t take with them the satisfaction of knowing what purpose they had served.
Still, the not knowing ate at you more than it did at them. The coin you’d been paid was motivating. But your curiosity threatened to turn to obsession as the silent journey unfolded.
It was the wagon in the center of your train that held your attention. The other carts were mundane – trinkets and wares being moved between the merchant outposts in the region surrounding Tyr and Urik. But the center wagon was larger, perhaps a massive carriage containing a treasured relic; perhaps a wheeled howdah. Whatever its purpose, it was a well-loved thing, revered by those who guarded it and heavily ornamented by its creator.
Decorated as well were those guards flanking the wagon. Though their clothing was scant and weapons non-existant, their bodies were canvases of chaotic art. Rose-hued tattoos lined their skin, snaking haphazardly across their arms and chests – a series of intertwined lines forming a map that lead to nowhere. In a similar rose color, silken tangzhuang pants draped the legs of these warriors, hiding muscular legs that possessed a grace that allowed the guards to seemingly float across the same desert sands you trudged through. They did not sweat, they did not flinch and they never once let slip the preternatural alertness that unnerved you.
Nor did they fight.
During a particularly brutal brigand attack, the stoic guardians simply took readied positions around their treasured cart. They stood coiled, ready to enter battle should enemy combatants break through the lines that you and your comrades held. In silence they waited, offering no assistance while you neutralized the threat. You considered confronting them about their indifference but something in their determined gaze deterred you. Apparently, it had the same effect on the other caravan guards. No one dared challenge the supremely confident guards.
And so the journey went – until a sandstorm halted progress on the fifth day. The caravan weathered it well, losing only two slaves to the powerful winds and choking dust. As you prepared to move out afterwards, you heard the bells on the breeze.
The Belgoi came in behind the storm, using it as a natural cloak with which they could get near enough to spring their ambush. Their attack was brutal yet precise – they felled most of your caravan quickly. Only when a handful of you stood left to fight did the strangely garbed warriors join the fray.
They moved in a deadly dance; every move choreographed to inflict damage upon their foes. Many Belgoi fell to whirling hands and spinning feet.
You fought, bolstered by the change in fate. But fate is fickle; and it soon took the side of the Belgoi. When the first guardian fell, the others fought more fiercely. More desperately. There was fear and uncertainty among them – a weapon the Belgoi used against them.
Two fell. Then a third. With two remaining and your battle wounds severe, it seemed the end had come for you all.
It did, for most. And it came in the form of a child.
She stepped out of the howda as the Belgoi prepared to deliver killing blows to her guardians. Bathed in a blinding pink glow, her presence distracted the Belgoi and bought you time to crawl beneath the stranded wagons you nearly died protecting.
During the glimpse you caught of her young face, you saw within her soulful eyes an ancient sadness mixed with a grim determination. She looked at you briefly, quickly determining that you posed no threat.
Her gaze fiercened as she turned to face the Belgoi. The surviving guardians saw her then, tears filling their eyes. The look on their faces spoke of a remorse found only in failure.
The Belgoi quickly recovered and focused their attacks on her. She did not respond to their ringing bells, so they rushed her. As the first Belgoi reached her and prepared to strike, the light around her grew exponentially. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, she exploded from within, bits of her body turning to crystal and shredding the Belgoi and her own guardians to pulp.
The wagons you used for protection saved you from most of the crystalline shards that had moments before been a young girl. They did not spare you the concussive blast that accompanied her wrathful sacrifice. You were knocked around by the explosion, assailed by the detritus of the explosion. Shattered wagons, dislodged rocks and projected wares battered you into unconsciousness.
You drifted in and out – for how long, you knew not. Once, during a brief moment of consciousness, a desert madman came to you and whispered his message…