The day started out hot as ever, but they soon came to a green place in the wilderness. No one would ever call the area lush with greenery, but there were trees, and in the distance, it looked like a field of grain. Elder Stow rode in when they stopped. He checked his scanner and said there was a town in that direction. Lincoln looked it up and called it Taif.
“I don’t know,” Lockhart said. “The path we are on looks like it avoids the town.” He waited to hear from the others.
Katie shook her head. “Remember Italy, where we found Evan. All the local Latin tribes were fighting each other?”
“Where they treated strangers like shoot first and ask questions later?” Lockhart clarified.
Katie nodded. “That is the feeling I get about this place, like all the tribes are fighting each other. No telling how they treat the caravans.”
Lincoln spoke up. “I’m not comfortable in this place, but I figured it was just the heat.”
Decker rode up from the other wing. “The city looks like an armed camp. They have soldiers all along the walls. I recommend we avoid going there.”
“Boss,” Boston rode back from the point. She had her amulet out and shook her head. “I was checking the direction. It looked like we were going to have to veer to our left and go over the mountains. I was hoping we could avoid doing that. But all of a sudden, the Kairos moved, like when the gods used to move us in an instant. She is almost due south, now, well, south-southwest. The time gate shifted, too. Hopefully, we won’t have to go to sea, but look.” She held out her amulet for Lockhart to look, but he did not have elf eyes to read such a small map.
Katie got out her prototype amulet and confirmed Boston’s words.
“Town or no town?” Tony asked, wanting to get back on topic. He was not sure what Boston meant when she said the Kairos moved in an instant, like when the gods used to move them.
“We go around,” Lockhart said, just before the travelers, their horses and even the wagon and trees felt a massive pull toward the southeast. The wagon lifted on two wheels before it settled down again. Nanette, who just dismounted, and Lincoln both fell to the ground in that southeast direction. Several tree branches snapped off and flew a short way to the southeast, as if a great tornado-like wind came crashing in from the northwest, but they felt no wind at first. The air moved, as people and horses struggled to keep to their feet. Then the air seemed to change its mind as it came rushing back from the southeast at almost hurricane speed. It was not long before they heard the sound of rolling thunder. The earth beneath their feet began to shift and tremble. Lincoln looked, but no great flash of light came, and no mushroom cloud rose over the horizon.
“Sand,” Alexis and Katie both yelled at the same time.
“Turn the horses.”
“Turn your back.”
People expected the worst, but Elder Stow clicked a button, even as the sand came. The screens held the full seven minutes of the horrendous sandstorm. The people watched it tear up the trees outside the screen area. They saw it rip through the distant fields of grain before the sand built up on the outside of the screens and obscured their vision.
“As good a time as any to test the screens,” Elder Stow said. “I can see fluctuation in the stabilizers. I still have to work on it, but hopefully, they will stay up until the sandstorm stops.”
“Seven minutes,” Lincoln said, having timed the event.
“The legend says when Ubar sank into the sand, the sandstorm lasted for seven days,” Tony said.
The wind shifted and began to blow back in the direction from which it had been driven. The ground finally settled down, but the returning wind blew hard enough at first to knock down a couple of those broken trees. Soon enough, the wind became a simple breeze. Boston said she could smell the Red Sea in the distance, but the others only smelled the heat.
“So, anyway,” Lincoln said, even if it sounded like a street name, “Sweny Way.” He said, “No town.”
“No,” Lockhart said. “And no, Alexis. You can’t go there and heal everyone hurt by that storm, or whatever it was.”
Alexis looked unhappy but nodded. Nanette gave her a hug before they all mounted and started. Alexis did have a suggestion. “We should stop and have lunch before we leave the trees.”
Lockhart agreed with that, so that was what they tried to do. They found a troop of baboons clambering around the rocks and in the trees. The baboons spent lunchtime yelling at the travelers and occasionally throwing pebbles and twigs at them. Nanette countered with an offer of elf bread. They all watched the big male as he checked it out and tested it. He screeched, and the travelers put out a dozen loaves which the baboons collected before they ran back to their rocks and trees. As far as Boston could tell, about a third of the bread got eaten. The rest got played with, which mostly meant squished.
While they rested in the heat of the afternoon, Decker meditated and let his eagle totem up into the sky. He looked to the southeast, over the mountains, but saw nothing to indicate the reason for their seven-minute sandstorm. He figured it had to be too far away to see. He also figured it had to be a massive explosion, and if it was too far away to see, Lincoln had been right to look for a mushroom cloud.
Elder Stow suggested a dual-concussive gravitron bomb. He explained that it sucked everything in and squished things close enough, almost like a miniature black hole. Then, after the initial action, it exploded back outward, more powerful than a simple atomic explosion. He said a big enough bomb might affect an area of a thousand miles around, or more. “An old fashioned, but powerful device,” he called it. No wonder Decker could see no sign of it, even from the limits of his eagle flight.
Decker wheeled his eagle to the south. He saw scrub grass, and hills broken by sections that looked like good grass and even trees. He saw some towns and villages in that direction. He figured the land they were moving through still had plenty of good grazing land, which accounted for the herd animals they saw in the night. Hot as it was, their journey should not be too difficult if they did not push it.
Finally, Decker wheeled around and examined the city they avoided. The city wall crumbled in a few places in the direction of the explosion. He saw plenty of people out in the fields, no doubt trying to save whatever crops they could. Then he saw some thirty soldiers headed straight toward their camp. He circled around. He saw the wraith leading the soldiers and knew it would be trouble. Fortunately, the wraith did not see him.
Decker let go of his totem and stood. “Everybody up,” he yelled. “We got trouble coming. About thirty soldiers from the city, and they look to be led by the wraith.”
“Pack it up,” Lockhart yelled.
“They will be here in about five minutes,” Decker added, knowing there was no way they could get everything packed and they could move in time. Decker did not exactly adjust the time from as the eagle flies to travel on the ground. It took more like ten minutes, and the travelers did get everything packed, more or less, but the soldiers surrounded them, so there was nowhere they could go. Fortunately, Elder Stow got his screens up again so the soldiers could not get at them. It sliced through a couple of rocks and trees, but it held.
“I don’t know how long they will hold, though,” he said. “I’m still seeing serious fluctuations in the stabilizers. They could collapse any time.”
Two soldiers walked up and cracked their toes against the screens. One fell forward and slid down the front. Two soldiers in the rear fired arrows at the travelers—maybe warning shots intended to get them to not put up a fight. One arrow snapped in half and fell harmlessly to the ground. The other bounced off at an angle and nearly skewered one of the other soldiers.
The wraith, who had been hiding in the back, rushed forward to point a boney finger at the travelers. “These are the ones,” she shrieked. “These made the earthquake and sandstorm. They killed your people. They must pay with their lives. Kill them. Kill them!”
One soldier who appeared to have a brain, set his hand against the screen, and asked, “How do we get at them? They seem to be protected by the gods in some way.” At the suggestion that the gods might be protecting the travelers, several soldiers backed away.
“It is not the gods,” The wraith yelled. “The gods have all gone over to the other side, you fool. Just kill them.”
A sudden hot breeze smelling of sand got the attention of soldiers and travelers alike. A face of sand hovered over them all, looking down on them. The first thing the face said was, “Hello Meg.”
The wraith looked up and screamed. She raced off as fast as she could, south, toward the next time gate. The face appeared to shrug as a hand of sand formed next to it.
“Meg is the wraith’s name?” Katie asked.
“Wraiths have names?” Lockhart mumbled.
The hand pointed one finger and touched the top of the screens. They popped like soap bubble, and Elder Stow protested.
“No, no, no.”
The Djin proves friendly and will take the travelers to the Kairos, they hope. Happy Reading