Read Born of Sand (Tales of a Dying Star Book 5) Online
Authors: David Kristoph
Tales of a Dying Star
Siege of Praetar
Sword of Blue
Drowned by Fire
Born of Sand
Copyright © 2016 David Kristoph
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form without prior consent of the author.
Cover design by Milan Jaram
Editing by Briana Kirby
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For that thing that one time
Part I: The Wanderer
It was at the top of a sand dune, yellow haze blowing away in all directions, when the woman decided to die.
She had wandered for three days. Aimlessly, up one dune and down another, into the endless expanse. Sweat still trickled down her back, though her mouth had long since gone dry. She didn't understand how the desert could be so hot. Hot enough to burn her bare feet until she ripped strips from her shirt and tied them around her soles. But that only left her shoulders to crisp instead. The skin there and on her neck flared in pain with every movement, unnaturally tight from the exposed burns.
How can there be so much sand?
she'd thought that first day as she entered the desert. At the edge of town it seemed diminutive. Now, among the rising mounds of orange and yellow, she felt like a fool. The dunes towered so large they blocked most of the sky, hundreds of feet high. It was like being in a strange forest. The dunes formed different shapes: sometimes round mounds, sometimes long crests like waves, the tops hazy and shifting from the strong wind above. The sand was omnipresent, in her ears and nose, toes and mouth. No matter how much she coughed or covered her face the fine particles invaded, coated, plastered. The sand seemed to suck away the moisture, accelerating her fate.
She found a
root the first day. The wind shifted and blew enough sand off of an outcropping of rock to expose the hard, vine-like plant. She fell on it eagerly, using her hands to worry at the vine, trying to crack it open, careless of the thorns drawing blood. Eventually she used her teeth to puncture the vine, and guzzled the grey liquid inside as if her life depended on it.
My life does depend on it
, she thought afterwards, rising to resume her trek. Though it was not her life she cared for.
My girls. I may be here, but they're on their way to safety. I did the best I could.
The temperature dropped rapidly as the sun fell behind the dunes, casting long valleys of shadow. The wind picked up, blowing down into the low points of the desert. Soon she was shivering.
Not sure of what else to do, she found an exposed section of rock, almost as long as her body and a few feet high. She used her hands like shovels to dig out the sand next to the rock. She laid down inside, scooping the sand back over her body, hoping it would provide insulation. She wiped at the freezing sweat covering her face. The only thing that accomplished was to smear sand across her face, clumping together from the moisture.
The sand helped preserve her body heat, but laying there proved difficult. Walking gave her something on which she could focus, to keep her mind off everything else. Now every ache and annoyance bubbled to the surface of her attention. The burns on her shoulders and neck screamed at her, agitated by the sand now rubbing against her skin. Her knees and ankles stiffened from the day's journey, begging to be stretched. Sand had accumulated in the corners of her eyes, stinging with every blink. She tried to coax more moisture into them by blinking rapidly but the effort only seemed to make it worse.
And then there was the rumbling noise underground.
She thought she'd imagined it, at first. A low vibration, felt instead of heard.
The sand shifting
, she told herself. The dunes were practically mountains, the weight of which must sound like an avalanche whenever it cascaded down the side.
But the sound returned, louder. And distinctly
her, not lateral.
The sand beasts were just a myth. A story told to scare children at night when they were tucked away in the safety of their beds, or for ruthless slumlords to adopt as the symbol of their cruelty. There couldn't be actual sand beasts roaming the sand. Could there?
The woman slept little as she remained perfectly still in her hole, listening. But she did forget about her other pains.
She woke to an angry sun, heat smothering her oppressively. There was nothing for her to do but continue on.
At midmorning she found another
root, with enough murky water to quench her thirst and wash the sand from her face. Her stomach growled, a reminder that she'd not eaten for two days. Her people were long used to hunger, their food rigorously controlled by the occupying Melisao, so it was a muted, distant feeling. But she would need to eat eventually.
How long until I find something?
Does it even matter?
She'd walked into the desert in a vague sense of escape. The Praetari often wandered into the desert to escape the city and the occupiers. Once she'd assured her children's safety, she'd fled this way because she hadn't known what else to do.
Now she realized why her people chose this path. Not to live, but to die.
She couldn't let the peacekeepers find her, wouldn't let them be her end. She'd lived nearly every day of her life without the freedom of choice. Forced to work. Forced to starve. Forced to despair. The method of her death was one decision she could make. A last expression of freedom.
Then why did she still walk on, clinging to life?
When she glanced at the sun to gauge the time of day, she noticed a bird circling, so high above that it appeared only as a fleck of black against the yellow sky. Sometime later one bird became two, then two became five. By the time night fell and she dropped into a makeshift sand hole a dozen of the carrion birds followed. They drifted from the sky to land atop a sand ridge, perched in a line, quiet silhouettes that watched her through the night.
She walked with increased fervency the third day, as though she could outrun them. They followed unyieldingly, never appearing to truly move, always directly above. The woman forced herself to stare at the sand, to not look up at them. She felt their eyes on her burned and blistering back.
The rumbling in the ground soon returned, louder and more violent than before, shifting the sand and unsettling her feet.
Death waits above, death waits below.
She wished she had a knife or a stick or
, anything, with which to protect herself. Her only defense was to continue moving, up one dune and down the other side, over and over. Every dune identical, every view the same.
So it shocked her to crest a dune and see people.
They appeared as minuscule specks in the distance, five shadows walking across a sandy ridge. "Hey!" she tried yelling, but it only came out as a raspy croak. "Hello?" She waved her arms, jumping up and down.
The people disappeared down the other side of the dune.
With renewed hope the woman hobbled down her dune in their direction. The slope added dangerous speed to her stride, her thin clothes blown back behind her. The exhaustion in her joints threatened collapse at any moment. She kicked up a fountain of sand with each step, feeling it drift down onto her hair and back. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and sweat ran down into her eyes and stung like needles.
She reached the low area between the dunes and began climbing up the other side. Her momentum shifted immediately. The sand gave way beneath her feet, halving each step. The grains closed in, burying her feet so she needed to kick the sand off with each lunge. The slope grew so steep that she fell forward and began using her hands in a sort of climb, fingers digging into the hot grains. Hope and desperation and eagerness pushed her forward, made her rush with all her strength, climbing the endless river of sand.
Suddenly she fell forward on her face as the slope leveled out.
She stood and looked around.
Endless mounds of sand filled her view, orange and unmarred.
She whipped her head around, to the left and right. Nothing but the round hills of sand stretching toward the horizon. She didn't see any footprints. Where had they gone? They couldn't have traversed another dune in the time she had darted there. Could they?
Taking only a few seconds to breathe deeply, she shambled down toward the next one.
The same view greeted her there.
By then her throat burned, constricted with exhaustion such that only a trickle of air entered her lungs. She fell to her hands and knees and began to cough, and clumps of sand fell out onto the ground, dark with moisture. Each spasm scratched her throat, like claws tearing her from the inside out. She crouched there, coughing and wheezing, for a long while.
I must have imagined them
, she finally accepted. A mirage, brought on by her state of exhausted desperation. The heat caused the air to behave strangely, coming off the sand in flickering waves that made the yellowish horizon waver unnaturally. That must be the explanation.
Eventually she began moving again, but her constitution lay destroyed.
There is no salvation out here. I am going to die
. The birds screeched overhead in agreement.
Her daughters were safe, traveling away from the terrible yellow planet with incredible speed. That gave her some measure of happiness, but it drifted away quickly.
I am selfish
, she realized. She didn't just want her daughters to be free, away from the clutches of an occupied planet. She wanted them safe with her. With their mother. How could a girl grow up without her mother there, to take care of her when she grew sick and to teach her how to be a woman?
A stranger will do that for them, now
. That comforted her when she shuffled her girls on the shuttle at the Station, but now the thought filled her with dread. At seven years old, Kaela would remember her mother fondly. But Ami, only four? Her memories would fade. Kaela could tell her sister about their true mother, the one who had sacrificed so much to save them, but it wouldn't be the same as a memory earned genuinely.