Soaring high above the heat-seared sands of a desert known as The Devil’s Kiln, a scavenger navigated the thermal updrafts with balletic ease. Its keen eyes scanned the sand’s surface far below for any sign of movement.
For hours now, the airborne scavenger had looped in lazy, contented circles. Having eaten the day before, its hunger had yet to become a nagging urge. But that didn’t mean it would ignore the unwary on the sands below. In a land so barren of life, a single meal quite often had to last for days. And so, it searched.
The sun baked the parched land, and would continue to do so for many hours to come. Most creatures of the Kiln emerged only with the onset of night, for the oppressive heat made any diurnal excursion practically a death sentence. An hour in the open would burn the skin, drawing forth precious water, water difficult to replace when one lives in the Kiln’s aridness.
But despite that, the scavenger knew from past experience that certain creatures made the daylight hours their own. Snakes, scorpions, and dozens of other burrowing creatures that it had been fortunate to feed upon, could be found skittering along the sand’s surface going about their business. For such signs, the bird kept watch.
Drifting along the currents, it passed over a series of undulating hills and spied something other than the monotonous, sandy expanse. The bird altered its course and flew toward the curious oddity.
Little more than a patch of brown against the sand’s beige, it piqued the bird’s interest. A dead animal perhaps? Carrion suited the bird’s needs just as well as a fresh kill. Reducing its altitude, the bird tightened its circular flight until finally alighting upon the ground several feet from the brown patch.
The bird held its ground for a moment. Cocked a curious, wary eye at the brown patch nestled within the sand, then glanced around for any rival that may be enroute. The skies were clear and the sands deserted. Naught but a light sprinkling of windblown sand disturbed the tranquil scene.
Twice it hopped before coming to a stop. Now two feet away, it watched to see if the brown patch would react to its presence. When it didn’t, the bird hopped again. Across the remaining foot of sand, the bird strode with rapid steps until coming to within pecking distance.
The dark patch didn’t look like the hide of any animal it had ever before encountered. Organic though it may be, it didn’t have fur, scales, or chitinous outer casings as other inhabitants of The Devil’s Kiln exhibited.
Reaching out with its beak, it gingerly pecked the brown patch; not once, but twice. Curiouser and curiouser; the twin pecks did little to pierce the object. The bird stepped back and gazed at the object a moment, wondering at this strange thing. Deciding to give it one more try, the bird hopped closer again, and pecked.
In a span of time that would have made a heartbeat seem long, a hand shot forth from out of the sand. So suddenly had it appeared, that the bird had scant time to react before fingers encased its body in an inescapable prison.
Squawking but once, the bird vanished from sight as the hand just as rapidly returned beneath the surface. During the ensuing minutes, a gentle wind erased all traces of the bird’s presence; tri-toed tracks faded away, the surface grew smooth once more, and a lone, black feather danced its way across the dunes.
The Devil’s Kiln remained quiet throughout the rest of the day. Though once the sun began sinking toward the horizon, and the oppressive heat became less so, life returned to the desert.
Small creatures scurried from their sandy hideaways, birds with large eyes took to the skies in search of prey, and on a quiet dune where a bird once pecked, sand erupted into the air.
Throwing off the blanket and layer of sand which had served to insulate him from the Kiln’s lethal heat, Squad Leader Holk Tyre emerged from his hole. Still remaining in his diurnal burrow lay what remained of the bird. It hadn’t been pleasant, consuming the bird raw as he had, but in so doing, Holk had regained a little of his spent strength, enough perhaps to reach the end of this infernal place.
For two weeks, he had undergone searing heat, parched lips, and an aching belly. Though not native to such conditions as existed in this godforsaken land, Holk quickly learned that night travel would be the only means whereby he could survive.
As he folded his blanket and then slipped it within his tunic to keep his hands free, the one-time squad leader couldn’t help but think of the men that had fled with him into The Devil’s Kiln following the disastrous assault upon the city-state of Trelakan.
Seventy-five thousand men had set out under the leadership of King Redstorm, a monarch with a great vision for the future of his peoples. A two-week march brought them across the Egothian Plains to Trelakan, a commercial hub for caravans from the Far East. To take it would give Redstorm’s people access to many riches and luxuries currently beyond their means.
The assault had gone wrong from the beginning. Earlier intelligence had indicated the city held a garrison of less than five thousand, a force Redstorm’s seventy-five thousand should have readily overcome. Instead, they found twenty thousand men ready to sell their lives dearly to protect their city and their people.
Word had reached Trelakan of Redstorm’s plans, and they were ready. In addition to the ten thousand within the walls, reinforcements over a hundred thousand strong marched from their allies and arrived three days into the siege. Redstorm’s men had been obliterated.
The fate of King Redstorm remained unknown to Holk, though hope for his continued survival eluded the squad leader. It had only been through a desperate fight for freedom that Holk and his men won their freedom. Before losing sight of their King, Holk watched a force of five thousand descend upon, and completely cut off, the men personally led by Redstorm. All must have been either killed, or captured.
Holk’s men had numbered three score when they originally set out for Trelakan. The ensuing rout and fight for their lives, claimed one score, the Kiln had taken the rest. Only Holk survived. For all he knew, he may be the only member of that ill-fated campaign to still live.
Desert raiders from Trelakan discovered them three days after the annihilation of the siege. Holk and his men had won the ensuing battle, though at a terrible price. Four men aside from Hold continued in their flight. Of the four, one died from his wounds not long after.
Another perished after being bitten by a denizen of the Kiln. None saw what had attacked the man, the only evidence the attack had even taken place was the appearance of a great swelling near his ankle. His final two men had merely collapsed from the effects of the heat, and perhaps no small amount of hopelessness. Holk was alone.
Using the emerging stars as a guide, Holk continued his quest to find the end of these infernal sands. His strength continued to diminish with every setting of the sun. Food was scarce, but water was even scarcer. He had come across but one pool during his trek across the dunes. Clear and crisp, the water did much to revitalize him. But that had been three days ago and the oppressive heat of the Kiln had subsequently robbed him of those precious fluids.
Throughout the night, he walked. His mind roamed paths of past joys as he sought to put the direness of his situation behind him, even if for only a moment. Family, friends, times of joviality spent with men now lying dead amongst the desert sand, all this he concentrated on as he forced his body to put one foot in front of the other. For though his body longed to keel over and rest, he knew that to succumb but once, would be a death sentence. Holk doubted his ability to ever get moving again should he allow it.
Cries of birds accompanied his desert odyssey, the scurry of small animals aided to break his sense of isolation, and Holk trudged onward. Not until the eastern sky began to lighten with the coming of dawn did he finally bring his trek to a halt.
I can’t go on.
Exhaustion and despair sought to sap what will he had remaining. Turning dry, sandy eyes toward the predawn light, he dreaded the time when the sun would emerge. The air was cool at the moment, or at least relatively so. But once the sun peeked over the horizon, the air would once again turn searing.
With an unknown distance yet before him, parched nearly beyond endurance, Holk realized that should he again bury himself beneath the sands to avoid the heat, the burrow may very well become his grave. It had been all he could do to muster the strength of will to crawl forth the last time. Would he be able to rise again? Whether he could or not, Holk had little choice, he must dig and bury himself or the heat would assuredly kill him before the sun reached its zenith.
Dropping to his knees, he began the arduous duty of creating a hole large enough into which he could readily fit. It couldn’t be too deep, or excessive sand would accumulate atop him and he would suffocate. Not deep enough would cause him to bake like bread in an oven. The perfect depth allowed for two inches of sand to settle atop his blanket. Most of the heat would be radiated away while still being porous enough to allow oxygen through.
Both hands worked to remove the sand. He prayed that his efforts would have the added benefit of uncovering water, though knew he would not be so fortunate.
The eastern sky continued its journey toward dawn. Having grown much brighter, he could feel the temperature already beginning to rise.
Dig, scrape. Dig, scrape. His hole steadily grew, yet with each action of sand removal, his will to continue diminished. Halfway completed, his arms grew still and he stared blankly at the hole. Holk hadn’t even realized he sat there motionless until the sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon like bolts of fire. When realization hit, he knew this day would be his last.
Memories of his young wife and child left behind nagged at him, begging him to continue, but he hadn’t the will anymore. What’s the use? Mind clouded by fatigue, belly aching with hunger, lips cracked from lack of water, he simply hadn’t the strength or will to continue. He tuned his face toward the sun. You win. Toppling over to the side, he hit the sand and didn’t move.
How long he laid there as the unrelenting sun rose into the sky, he couldn’t be sure. But a time came when consciousness returned and eyes opened. At first he thought he had gone blind until realizing that he must have unconsciously drawn the blanket over him at some point. Reaching a hand to move it aside, his fingers discovered the material to be extremely hot. Uncaring, he thrust it aside.
The heat hit him like a physical blow and he gasped. Drawing in the hot air caused him to gasp all the more. Heat waves made the world a disorienting place. Distorting and disorienting, Holk gazed across a hellish landscape. About to succumb once more to the desire to just give up and die, he caught sight of a disturbance in the unchanging, undulation of the dunes. A dark spot.
At first, he doubted what his eyes told him. Heat radiations made the dark spot indistinct, but from somewhere deep in his fatigued mind, surfaced the thought that this might in some way be shelter.
Hope sprang anew and he surged to his feet. Shelter! Clouds of sand exploded upward with each staggering step he took. His eyes fixated upon what gradually grew to be a dark spire of jagged stone rising out of the sand. Further steps drew him closer and he came to realize that more than the lone spire rose from the desert.
The dark spot turned out to be a group of four, stone monoliths. Three tapered off to become more mounds than spires, while the fourth peaked at twice the height of the others. Formed of dark stone, they looked to be natural rock outcroppings rather than manmade.
Holk increased his speed as visions of water and caves filled with sheltering coolness drove him onward. He stumbled but once, tumbling down the slope of a dune. At the bottom, he dragged himself back to his feet and raced on.
High expectations met bleak reality upon his arrival at the first up-thrusting monolith of stone. Its height provided some break from the unrelenting sun. And though its base could have encompassed several homes and still have room for a mill, it failed to hold the internal cavity he so desperately needed.
Pausing within the monolith’s shadow, Holk gazed across to where the next one rose from the sand. Similar in height and width, it too bore little in the way of welcoming openings. His eyes scanned the others until finally falling upon the smallest of the stone projections. Nearly half the size of the one in whose shadow he now stood, it nevertheless bore a sliver of shade that could very well be the entrance to a cave.
His mind worked overtime as to what he might find within. Would there be an underground pool of water; crisp, cool, and deep enough to wallow in? Perhaps stocked with fish, edible lichen, a cord of wood, ale, mutton, a good sized wo… Snapping out of his delirium, he shook his head to clear away such errant thoughts and concentrated on the distance to the cave, if cave it be.
A quick run. He could do that. His strength would assuredly hold out that long. After taking but another moment to compose himself and ready for the entrance back into the searing heat, he lurched into motion.
Instantly, the sun began sapping what little strength left to him. Its blistering tentacles of light ravaged and sought to bring him down. One step, a quick second, then followed by a shuffling third, he began working his way toward the promise of relief. Relief from wandering, relief from having to put one foot before the other, but most of all, relief from the sun.
Midway there, he began making out the inner contours beyond the opening. No doubt remained about it being a cave. He could almost feel the coolness of its inner core reaching out to lend him strength against its age-old enemy, the sun.
His pace quickened. Sweat would have run in rivulets down his back had his body any to spare. Each step was hell; so close, yet still to be weighed down by unrelenting heat. Sand flew as his lack of strength prevented him from raising his feet from out of the sand. Plowing twin furrows through the smooth top layer of the Kiln, he continued on.
Five feet before the opening, he felt it: a drop in temperature. Six more quick, shuffling steps and he passed from the hell of The Devil’s Kiln, to that of blessed coolness. He had but a moment to enjoy this new world before it begun spinning out of control. Fatigue, dehydration, and perhaps a touch of heatstroke could be held at bay no longer. They would have their will.
Holk pitched forward and passed out.
How long he remained unconscious he may never know. When he awoke, Holk discovered himself in a world of darkness. Disoriented at first, he couldn’t recall why he felt stone beneath him instead of sand. Also, part of his forehead throbbed. Upon closer examination, he discovered a rather large goose egg just above and to the right of his right eye.
Further disorientation came when he found no stars in the sky above. The only indication he had not gone blind came in the form of a sliver of dark, slightly lighter than the rest. When he came to understand it was the night sky being silhouetted by the narrow entrance, memory returned.
Unable to discern anything about this new environment, he carefully found a spot against the wall where he could sit and keep watch on the outside world. The coolness of the cave wall brought a welcomed comfort. Nestled up against it, he laid his head back and gazed at the stars.
I’m going to die here.
If death did come calling before the sun rose, at least they could share this cool refuge. Perhaps death would be thoughtful enough to bring along a cask of ale. Holk grinned at the thought of sharing a mug of frothy goodness with the Stealer of Souls. One last mug of ale, he’d give anything to be able to slake his raging thirst.
Sighing for things that could never be, he watched the stars. Before even realizing it, the black thief of fatigue came and scampered away with his consciousness.
Cracking open eyes red as the fires of hell, and drier than the sands of the Kiln, Holk returned to the world. No longer shrouded in cool darkness, he found night having fled and that dawn had come.
Rays from the tormenting sun penetrated his bastion. Already, the temperature within the cave had increased twenty degrees. Not exactly hot as yet, the air retained only the faintest memory of coolness remembered from before.
At least the position of the sun in relation to that of the cave entrance had prevented the rays from falling directly upon him. Holk could feel the heat radiating outward from where they did land, less than a foot away. He knew it wanted him, could see it in the way it maliciously inched its way closer to him with the rising of the sun.
“You’ll not have me,” he croaked. Throat parched beyond belief, he laughed. Not the normal laughter one would find at the local tavern, or perhaps the sort that bubbled forth when the person you despised the most acted in an embarrassing, and much ridiculed manner. No, this laughter boiled forth from another source. Holk wished to believe it came from the fact that he lived, but feared it may be the beginning of madness.
As the sun crept closer across the floor of the cave, the laughter continued, only winding down when his stomach cramped and seized up on him in a most painful spasm. Doubling over, Holk wrapped his arms around his middle, fell to the side, and writhed in agony. By the time the pain had stopped, the sun peeked around the edge of the opening and fell upon him.
His eyes flashed with hate toward the burning orb, and he rolled deeper within the cave, away from its murderous clutch. Coming up against the other side of his small enclosure, Holk came to a stop. Eyes focused upon the light that could no longer reach him, he felt the return of the laughter. Fearing to allow it free reign once more, Holk balled his hand into a fist, and struck his leg a painful blow. The interjection of pain halted the laughter, and he grew calm once more.
Hoping that if he ceased gazing toward the sunlight, the laughter would remain in its lair, Holk, turned to take in his surroundings. Last night, the cave had been steeped too deeply in darkness to make out more than vague outlines. Now that the sun had infiltrated his refuge, he could see its every detail.
Small would be the best description of the cave. If he and three other men laid down head to foot, the line thus formed would be hard pressed not to touch the walls. The entrance through which the bright invader shone proved to be the only entrance. Above, the ceiling rose to twice his height before tapering to a close. Around him, the walls formed a ragged excuse for a circle.
No water. Not even the barest hint of a drip cascaded down the sides. His hope of a wet sanctuary had been dashed upon the dry rocks of despair. The one consolation he had was that he remained out of the sun, and the rock protecting him drew coolness up from the depths below as a man would water in a well.
Not a bad place to spend one’s final hours, especially considering the alternative. Glancing once again to the patch of sunlight spread across the cave’s floor, he tried spitting contemptuously at the light, but his mouth held no saliva.
Sighing, he laid his head back against the rock and closed his eyes.
But death turned a deaf ear to his plea and left him to suffer a few moments longer. Moments turned into minutes, minutes passed into hours, and the sun marched in steady progression across the floor. As time passed and the sun rose to its zenith, the amount of sunlight entering the cave diminished until naught but a small sliver remained.
Holk watched that sliver during its last moments of life. Ever smaller it became, thinning and shortening until it was but the width and length of a man’s finger. Then, just before vanishing altogether, a strange thing occurred; an iridescent refraction. Lasting no more than the flutter of a raven’s wings, a miniscule explosion of light blossomed forth.
So quick, and lasting such a short time, Holk hadn’t thought much about it at first. Minutes passed, and he found his mind returning to the starburst of light. Maybe due to the isolation of the cave, or perhaps because boredom had set in, his mind continued replaying the flash of light. Finally, he roused himself sufficiently to crawl over and see what it could be, if for no other reason than to quell the insistent obsession his mind had with it.
The temperature rose dramatically as he neared the cave’s entrance. Perspiration would have formed, had his body held a sufficient quantity of water. He wanted to quickly satiate his curiosity and return to the cooler, inner confines of the cave. The air had already increased fifteen degrees in such a short span of distance.
As he neared the area whereupon the sun had shone, Holk found the stone floor to be heated to an unpleasant state. Testing indentations and raised, sand dusted imperfections scoring the floor, he found placements for his hands that didn’t burn as much, and came to the source of the flash.
Blowing away a thin layer of sand, he discovered something shiny encased within the stone of the floor. Intrigued, he tried using a fingernail to pry it loose to no effect. Next, he tried using the tip of his belt knife to pry it loose. But that too failed to produce results.
Being unable to win its release from the stone only piqued his interest all the more. Turning his attention to the stone around the shiny object, he began chipping away at the stone. He found a hand-sized rock and used it as a hammer to drive the knife-point into surrounding imperfections.
Chips flew. Small though they may be, he gradually made progress and soon, a cavity began to form around what turned out to be a many faceted stone. Unlike any stone he had ever seen before, it was clear, translucent, and incredibly small. The skill involved in its construction had to have been of the highest kind.
Further excavation revealed the stone to be part of a larger, silvery object lined with other, similar stones. Intrigued, he continued widening the hole. Even though his efforts pitted the blade and warped it out of shape, still he kept pounding away.
The silvery object turned out to be rounded, a corner of something larger perhaps? With the hole now four inches deep, he chipped away another piece that revealed a shiny surface, one as smooth as glass. Clearing away the debris and blowing away the dust his efforts had created, he realized it was glass, a mirror in fact.
Such a realization shocked him. A mirror? Buried in stone in the middle of the Kiln? How could it have survived? Assuredly, time spent thus entombed should have seen the glass shattered, or at the very least, cracked, long ago.
Tapping ever so gently with his stone and knife, he carefully chipped away more of the cave floor from in front of the glass. If the dimensions of what had thus far been revealed gave any indication, the mirror had to be quite sizeable. Once his excavation exposed another three inches of the mirror’s surface, he removed as much of the debris from the hole as he could. Then, after a short period of blowing away the finer particles, he could better see the reflective surface.
Dust clung to the glass like honey on a child’s hand. Reaching out with his fingers, he began wiping the surface clean. No sooner had his finger touched the glass, than sight left him and darkness consumed him, or so it felt.
Death had come!
Overcome by a feeling of weightlessness, Holk cried out. For the first time since coming of age, fear overcame him and forced a sound from him he never thought to utter. So primal was its intensity, that it felt as if it would tear asunder his already parched and ill-used throat.
A sudden plunge into ice-cold water cut his cry short as his feet, followed by the rest of him, went under. The unexpected submerging in frigid temperature shocked him back to his senses. At first flailing about in disorientation, he quickly brought his actions under control and kicked for the surface. When his head broke the water, he sputtered and coughed, expelling a lung full of water.
Not a light could be seen. No shades of gray or deeper shadows could be discerned. The darkness was absolute. Holk didn’t care, he had water! Precious, life-saving water. Crisp, cool, and wonderful, he treaded water while drinking his fill. Tempted to fill his entire being with the wonderful liquid, he brought his urge under control after the fifteenth swallow. No need to get sick by ingesting too much, too soon.
The uncontrollable laughter returned. He splashed. He played. He laughed with complete, unrestrained giddiness. On the brink of madness, he didn’t know if he were alive or dead. Did it matter?