Ahlitah continued to sample the air, but it was Ehomba who called a halt. “That is odd.”
A frustrated Simna was searching their immediate surroundings for a nonexistent danger. “What is?”
“That rising ridge of sand.” The herdsman pointed. Simna glanced distractedly at the unthreatening maroon granules that were drifting across their path. “I see a line of blowing sand. Nothing odd about that.”
“Not in and of itself, no.” The herdsman gripped his spear a little tighter. “But by its actions it heralds an approaching darkness. Not an eromakadi, an eater of light that can only be slain by an eromakasi, but some kind of more physical, less subtle relation.”
“Hoy, what are you jabbering about, long bruther?” What he could not see made Simna more nervous than any visible opponent, no matter how menacing.
Adding to the swordsman’s discomfort, Ehomba took a step backward, acting for all the world as if he were actually retreating from something. “The reddish sand advances—but the sand in front of it and across from it does not move.” He glanced meaningfully at his friend. “Since when does the air select its wind-borne freight with such care?”
Simna’s expression contorted as he mulled over his companion’s words—and suddenly he saw the blowing, drifting red sand in a new light. It was true, only the sand the color of rust rushed and rambled across the width of the wadi. Before it and behind it, not a grain was stirring. That was peculiar, all right.
It was also more than a little frightening.
“Maybe we’d better go back.” He had already started backing up. “Loswee’s directions aside, there must be another way north. One that doesn’t involve confronting animate sands.”
Retreating, he bumped into the litah’s behind. But the great cat did not growl at him. He was holding his ground, facing back the way they had come.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, man.” A rising breezed stirred his jet black mane.
A second stream of reddish sand was whisking across the ravine behind them, cutting off their only retreat. Simna gaped at the steady flow and the rising dike it was creating.
“For Grentoria’s sake, it’s only sand! A man could still clear it in a single bound!”
“Maybe,” Ehomba conceded, “if all it did was continue to blow from west to east.” Turning, he gestured sharply with the toothed tip of his spear. “That way, quickly! Up the side of the dune!” Obeying his own words, he started up the slick, difficult slope. Glancing methodically from left to right, Ahlitah followed, his broad footpads having an easier time with the difficult terrain than the sandaled human.
Simna trailed behind, cursing with every step the sand that slid away beneath his feet and made upward progress a strenuous ordeal. Seeing that the mysterious wall of red sand was now ten feet high at either end of the gulch and still rising helped to spur him on.
They were halfway up the side of the accommodating dune when the sky began to darken and a voice boomed behind them. It was the lament of something that was less than a beast and more than a natural phenomenon, the unnaturally drawn-out moan of a fiend most monstrous and uncommon. With their feet planted ankle deep in the sand the fleeing travelers turned, and saw at last what had so subtly tried to ambush them by trapping them within the ravine.
It looked for all the world (or any other) like just another dune.
Except it was taller, and darker. Angry-red darker. And it advanced not in the manner of a living creature, but in the fashion of dunes, by shifting that which composed its near side forward, so that it in turn pulled the center. The center drew the rear portion forward, rolling on over the middle, and so continuing the cycle. Back become middle become front, like a slow wheel spinning about a central axis; endless, eternal, indomitable.
It had no arms and then a hundred, no feet but one that was as wide as the base of the advancing dune itself, like the great lumbering foot of some muscular mollusk. Everywhere and all of it was sand, dark red like all the rust that had ever afflicted all the metals of the world rolled and bunched and squeezed up together into a single swiftly shifting pyramid of revenge. Loswee had spoken of roaring dunes, and indeed there were some such in Ehomba’s own country. But never before had he heard of, or encountered, a dune that howled and moaned and bellowed like some sky-scraping banshee unwillingly fastened to the Earth.
And in the midst of all that displaced geologic fury, two-thirds of the way up the face of the oncoming mountain, were two eyes. An abyssal, lambent red, they pulsed like fires from deep within the sand, inclined forty-five degrees in opposite directions, and focused fixedly on the three fleeing travelers. Why they, foreigners in a foreign land, should inspire such rage and determination on the part of the Dunawake, none of the three could say. Perhaps the monster raved and raged from a deep-seated need to exterminate whatever life it encountered within the dunes, no matter its origin.
Already, several small mammals and reptiles had been caught and smothered beneath the advancing skirt of sand, too slow or too blinded by blowing particles to flee in time. The same fate now threatened those trying to scramble clear of its reach. Blasts of maroon sand stung their backs while granular tendrils clawed at their legs. High on the face of an indifferent, inanimate dune, they were temporarily safe as long as they stayed above and ahead of the abomination’s advance.
But the Dunawake was bigger than the dune they were climbing. If it continued to flow forward it would eventually engulf the sandy prominence, overwhelming both it and them. Ehomba knew the far side would provide no refuge. Not when their abrasive pursuer could send arms of sand racing around the base of the dune whose summit they were about to reach. They were trapped. They could only continue to climb until they reached the top, there to wait until the steady advance of the Dunawake overwhelmed them on their final perch.
Struggling upward as his sandaled feet sank inches deep and more into the unstable slope, Simna drew his sword and slashed repeatedly at the thin red tendrils that were clutching at his legs. As he cut and hacked away, handfuls of sand went flying in all directions. What held them together, what made of tiny individual particles a coherent and persistent entity, he could not imagine. Who would have thought that unadulterated rant would make so effective a glue?
For every clutching sandy offshoot he scattered, another crept upward to take its place. Noting the dispersing effect of his methodical, skillful sword strokes, he felt he could eventually cut the Dunawake down to size. Why, at the rate his sword was strewing sand to left and right, the monster would run out of granules with which to form grasping tendrils in not less than a couple of million years! Unfortunately, his arm was already growing tired.
Sorely vexed by the streamers of sand that flogged his heels, Ahlitah whirled repeatedly to bite at the sinuous red tormentors, pulverizing them within his massive jaws. But biting and spitting were ultimately no more effective than Simna’s sword-work. Furthermore, with each snap the great cat had to spit out a mouthful of hot, red sand. He would have much preferred to battle an opponent with some taste.
“The sword!” Sweating profusely as he struggled up the tenacious incline, Simna yelled at his tall companion. “Use the sword of sky metal and blow this Dunawake to bits!”
Looking back down at his friend, Ehomba shouted above the advancing shriek of animate sand treading corybantically upon itself. “It will not work! I can fight wind with wind, but rock and soil and sand are a weightier proposition.”
“Try!” With an effort more of will than of muscle, the swordsman used some of his rapidly failing strength to accelerate upward, until he was standing alongside his friend. Wind squeezed forward by the advancing Dunawake tore at their garments and wilded their hair. “If you can’t beat it, maybe enough wind in its face will discourage it.”
They were nearly to the top. “Feeding the wind off a dune face only encourages it. Its strength lies in its coherence. You have seen how it may be cut and broken on the sword.”
“Hoy!” Simna agreed as they reached the crest of the dune together. Ahlitah turned and snarled, mane streaming backward in the hot, stifling wind, defying the elements both natural and unnatural. “And if Gupjolpa would give me ten thousand swordsmen we’d beat it back as surely as this hot air scours my flesh. But there are only two, me and thee, and you won’t fight.”
“I did not say that.” Having swung his backpack around to rest against his chest, the herdsman was busy within its depths. “I suggested that it was futile to use the sword.”