The Mind-Thistle Run [Short Story]
[Short story written for Fantasy Writers Forum August Challenge, 2019 – this was written pretty quickly and subject to a limit of 5k words, so apologies in advance for any rough edges.]
Ankles, so called because he still bore the scars from his manacles. It was common amongst prisoners forced to march the dunes at the height of the Swelter, when the Sun burned so hot the metal scorched the flesh. What was uncommon was to survive the march.
Now he stood at the gunwale as a free man, the desert air still hot but cooling the sweat on his face.
He fancied that he could taste a hint of brine.
The Sweep was coming……
Beside him Captain Carolhano lowered her spyglass and passed it to him silently. Ankles scanned the desert for the object of her interest: a convoy of three transports. Strange.
“What do you think?” she asked. He gave her a wry smile. They both knew she had already decided.
“Well,” he said slowly as if ruminating, “We don’t have much time, Captain.”
“I know, but…..”
It was a juicy target, but was it worth drowning over? The Sweep had begun, judging by the position of the second moon; Udarik was growing larger by the hour, his pale yellow face upsetting the normal motions of the oceans beyond the Keshmon Tide Canyons. They would soon fill and overspill. They had maybe two or three days before the desert flooded.
Meanwhile a lonely convoy trundled across the Iyarpi Hot Pan. “They don’t appear to have any guards with them,” Carolhano added.
“Odd,” Ankles remarked. Of course, any guard would tell you it was no time to be out on the sand. “Think they’re just stragglers?”
The captain flashed him a smile, the kind made the pit of his stomach tingle. “Why don’t we go ask them?”
“And make it quick?”
She nodded. “Then we’ll head through Shooters Gully, around to Irongate.”
Ankles cocked an eyebrow. “Irongate?”
“But we’ll lose half our loot.”
“True, but….” The Irongate Syndicate was renown for its loose morals and the high price that came with them. Corsairs such as themselves would find harbour at a cost, but the Aurai’s Gift needed repairs. “We better hope these rubes have something worth taking. Set sail Mr. Ankles.”
“Aye aye, Captain!” and Ankles swung into action, bellowing orders and rallying the crew as they prepared to catch the winds of the blue desert skies.
Meanwhile, high above, Udarik continued on his relentless path.
* * *
They approached low and fast across the flats, and by the time the convoy spotted the Aurai’s Gift there was no escape.
Carolhano stood on the foredeck as Spool worked the gunnery pod. His first shot crippled the engine core of the lead transport, and one by one he popped the other two. No one could beat an Imperial gunner when it came to this kind of work, and Carolhano had never regretted taking the disgraced soldier on board. His crimes, as heinous as they were, stayed in the past. He was crew now, and he was worth every penny of the share.
Through her eyeglass Carolhano grinned as chaos engulfed the convoy.
“Perfect,” she muttered.
Coming up from midship Ankles passed her sword with mock reverence. “We’re ready, Captain.”
Carolhano gave him a nod, noted his smile. It was a smile to win hearts and it belonged to another disgraced outcast she’d recovered, another stray who’d become crew. It was a smile she was very fond of.
She belted her sword, checked her pistol and went to the gunwale with her band of corsairs.
“On my mark!”
* * *
Chaos whirled around the blue robed Holy Pillar of Shastan.
“What’s going on?” demanded the priest as people ran about him like headless chickens. He rubbed rheumy eyes, and cursed the damned heat again. Why had they stopped? And what were those damnably loud noises that had roused him from his slumber? Were they under attack? Out here?
“You! Stop!” he cried as he tried to collar a menial rushing past. He was roundly ignored, leaving him blustering to no one other than the wind.
“The impertinence! I’ll have your hides! Tell me – ”
But chaos had no ear for the Holy Pillar.
* * *
Ankles took a deep breath and charged down the ramp, his captain on one side and the man mountain they called Bunches on the other. The thrill of the charge swept him up, and he was at full pelt into the midst of panicking men and women dressed in blue robes…..
……who promptly surrendered, on their knees and crying for mercy. A few had taken off across the sand, heading for the mountains. The bloody fools!
“Where they going?” Bunches grunted as he shaded his eyes with a great slab of a hand. Ankles shrugged, deflated. He’d battled haggling merchants with more fight. He eyed the gaggled of menials who appeared to be from one of the temples, their robed marked with sigils from…..
“Pillars of Shastan,” said Carolhano, sheathing her sword beside him. “Blessed luck!”
“How so, captain?”
“Let’s just say that, unlike some temples, they’re happy for people to buy their forgiveness.”
“Wages of sin, captain?” Ankles grinned.
“Aye. Nothing sweeter than the coin of salvation, eh? Find me the fattest, sweatiest one of the lot.”
“Aye aye, captain.”
* * *
Carolhano braced herself. She could hear the sound of coin approaching, a sound remarkably akin to the self important blusterings of a pampered functionary. A moment later Ankles appeared, followed by Lewd and Bunches flanking a big man in a blue robe. He was a Pillar of rank, judging by the tattoos on his bald head and innumerable beads about his wrists. That and the fact he was carrying enough weight for three people. She knew the type well enough, had seen plenty of them in her past as a young woman serving in the temples…..
But that was another life.
She watched in amusement as the corpulent priest shot forward, shoving Ankles aside and bustled toward her, sandals slapping.
“He looks…. annoyed,” remarked Crapper, her mechanic.
“I shall no doubt have to apologise for the inconvenience,” Carolhano snorted. They were still chuckling when the priest arrived.
“I demand – ” but the Holy Pillar didn’t get any further as Carolhano slapped him across the face. He blinked in surprise, then turned red and erupted. She let him blow off a little steam for a moment with irreverent boredom.
“…… never in my life have I been so disrespected! It shall not stand! I will have you flayed and hung from the Gates of Yesh! I will – ”
“Ningen’s Balls! Does he ever shut up?” asked Ankles.
Laughter erupted, bringing the priest to a stammering halt. Carolhano took the opportunity to set him straight about a few things. “Listen priest, no ones gives a good goddamn! We’re just here to alleviated your burden of coin, so I’ll make you a deal. If it’s on my ship in the next five minutes I might find the mercy to take your people out of here. Or I can leave you all to the Sweep. The choice is yours.”
More bluster shot forth. She slapped him again, hard, and motioned to Ankles who kicked him in the back of the knee. Suddenly he found himself staring up at her with a sword pressed against the jowls of his neck. (Ankles would later recount to the crew how she was so fast he hadn’t even seen her draw it!).
“Perhaps I wasn’t making myself clear,” Carolhano growled. “Now blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that?”
“Good. You might just make it out of this with you skin still attached to your body.”
* * *
Compassion, a rarity in the desert, but then the captain wasn’t the typical corsair either. Ankles had served her for two whole years now and learned that just as she could be hard as nails when needed, she didn’t revel in senseless violence like some of their compatriots, or indeed, other authorities: he’d seen enough during his time in an Imperial garrison to know the way their minds worked.
Bad times, bad memories….
No, his captain wasn’t like that. She was someone you could respect, someone with honour. Yeah, they were going to unburden the priest of his riches, but she wasn’t going to leave a bunch of hapless menials out here to die. They were corsairs, not monsters.
Standing beside her he felt a tingle of pride as she surveyed the blue robed menials lined up before her, the priest bound and gagged to one side. She took a breath, and began to speak: “I don’t know how you got here, nor do I care why you chose to cross the Iyarpi Hot Pan so late, but the Fates have seen fit to bring us together. While I confess that I am relieving your priest of his hoard, you can at least be thankful that I am unlike my fellow corsairs who would leave you to the Sweep, assuming you still had your heads on your shoulders. We, however, are a little more grateful for the wages you’ve brought us. As such I will offer you a place in the hold until such time as we reach Irongate. If you behave we wont throw you overboard. When we reach Irongate, you’ll be free to leave. What say you to this?”
There was some muttering followed by a relieved: “Aye!”
“Very good! Bunches, Lewd, Spool – show them aboard.”
As the menials filed away Ankles followed her to the priest.
“What are you gonna do with him?” he asked.
They looked down at the man. He was much quieter with the gag in, even if it hadn’t cooled his vigour for protest.
“If he keeps on like that he’ll probably do himself in,” Carolhano noted with a wry smile. “Perhaps we should just leave him here.”
In response the priest threw himself to grovel at her boots.
“No?” Carolhano asked, then gestured to Ankles to remove the gag. “Speak.”
“I-I’m worth m-more to you alive.”
Carolhano arched an eyebrow. “Go on.”
What he told them made the captain’s jaw drop. It was the first time Ankles had ever seen her truly surprised.
“Damn.” She turned to Ankles. “Find him a seat. Looks like he’s catching a ride to Irongate with us after all.”
* * *
Nightfall came and they were making good time, a little heavy but nothing that was going to get them drowned. The next day Tornie interrupted the Priest and his litany of complaints about the food, the taste of the water, the cramped conditions etc, etc. Carolhano was glad of the distraction as she followed the dark and willowy Tornie to the stern.
“What is it?”
Tornie, silent as ever, put a hand on the captain’s shoulder and pointed. Carolhano stared. There! Just a little too far off to be clear, something kicking up sand in a small cloud, something trailing them. A chill of suspicion ran up her neck, another bad memory.
And all she could think was that damned priest!
As if in reply a shudder ran through the ship and the deck jerked. The Aurai’s Gift began to slow, gliding on nothing but momentum. Carolhano cursed and left Tornie to keep watch as she rushed off to find her mechanic, Crapper. He was in the engine room with his head inside an open panel, monkey wrenching something technical. When he withdrew he looked vexed.
“Let me guess,” said Carolhano, “Sabotage?”
The mechanic nodded. “Nothing fancy, but enough. Damaged the power transfer regulator.”
She chewed her lip. Clearly someone in the priest’s retinue wasn’t just a menial and had no intention of letting them reach Irongate. She blew out a deep breath. “Can you fix it?”
“Of course,” Crapper almost laughed, “But we’ll be stuck going slow.”
“Let’s just say that we ain’t gonna make Irongate via the usual route,” and he gave her a meaningful look.
He nodded. “We gotta cro – ” but she cut him off with a raised hand.
“Just do what you can, okay?”
He nodded. “There is one other option, captain.”
“I know what you’re going to say Crapper. Save it.”
“But we don’t owe them – ”
She spun around and the look in her eye told him everything.
“Just fix the rig. Fast.”
She turned and walked away.
Behind her Crapper returned to his task. “Aye, Captain.”
* * *
Ankles threw back the liquor’s and its warmth descended to his belly. He wasn’t much of a drinker but the look on his captain’s face told him that it’d be impolite to say no. He waited in the gloom of her cabin as she cradled the cup.
“We have an assassin on board,” Carolhano said. She put the cup down and poured another. “One of the priest’s people.”
“Assassin?” Ankles replied with a frown. “What kind of assassin?”
“The kind whose job it is to make sure that certain big mouthed priests don’t let any secrets slip.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded, threw back her next drink. “Fairly sure. There’s something else; I think we have a tail.”
“Any idea who?”
“An idea, but right now we have a more pressing concern. With the rig damaged we’re not going to make Irongate by the usual route.”
Ankles watched her as he processed the information. “So, what are we going to do?” Even as he asked realisation was dawning.
“We’re going to have to make a run through the Mind-Thistle.”
What was the reasonable response to that? Freak out? Demand that there had to be another way? The very fact she was saying it meant there wasn’t. The Mind-Thistle Desert. It had many other names: Rapesands, The Wrack, the Sea of Nightmares, the Warp-Dunes etc. It was a part of the desert sunk in legend, a place said to be ancient and it did not welcome visitors. It was a place of visions and delusions, and whatever they were, they were sometimes real enough to kill.
“Is there nothing else we can do?”
“Can you guess what Crapper’s idea was?”
“I think I can guess,” Ankles smiled. “Lighten the load?”
She nodded, the grave look on her face reaffirming everything he knew about her. She’d once told him that to retain your humanity in a place like this, you had to hold yourself up to the highest of standards. It was a matter of honour.
“You sure about this?” Ankles asked for want of anything to say.
“No.” She poured again. “But what choice do we have?”
“And the tail?”
“Let’s see if we make it out first.”
He gave her a foolish grin and threw back his drink.
* * *
“Have you lost your mind?”
Carolhano regarded the priest with cool eyes. “Not yet.”
“There’s no argument. Consider yourself lucky I even bothered to inform you of my decision.”
“It’s madness! We shall not survive!”
“It’s the only way,” Carolhano replied levelly.
“There must be something you can do? If we are slow then jettison the unnecessary weight!”
“If you mean the coin, we need it to fix the ship.”
“I mean the servants!”
She smiled with all the warmth of a rockviper. “I thought you might see it that way.”
“It’s the logical thing to do! They’re – ”
Expendable? Say it…..
“ – expendable!”
She was across the table with the speed of a rockviper, slamming his head against the wooden surface and holding it. The knife that slammed down before his eyes bit his cheek.
“Out here,” she hissed in his ear, “We all take the risks as one. No one gets left behind, although I might be tempted to make one exception.”
“But…. you need….. me,” croaked the priest.
“More’s the pity.” She let him go and moved to the door as she sheathed her knife, sparing him one last glance. Tell him about the assassin? She decided against it. He’d only redouble his complaints.
Outside the door she spoke quietly to Bunches. “Take care. Someone wants him dead. Don’t trust anyone.”
The big man’s brow beetled, but he nodded his understanding.
“Aye, captain,” he growled.
* * *
The Aurai’s Gift crawled into the Mind-Thistle desert just after dawn. From the foredeck it looked no different, but Carolhano knew. She’d done this once before, and the first effects had started. First the heat began to subtly rise until it was almost suffocating and you thought it might burn you alive. She’d seen a man lose his mind, convinced that he was burning to a crisp. As a precaution she’d had Mend, the ships part-time medic, hand out sedatives just in case.
As they went deeper the next illusion began to form. The day came on fast, as if time was speeding up. While the chronometer ticked over without alteration the blaze of the sun arced with sudden speed across the sky and there was a desperate rush to pull googles on.
The sand-glider lurched forward as if sucked forward into the brilliance.
“Whath happenin’?” shouted Tongue, his voice strangely thin and high in the overload of the sun’s light.
“It’s just an illusion,” shouted Carolhano in reply, her words equally distorted. “Keep us full ahead!”
They ploughed on into the heat and light, feeling as if they were going to boil, their minds eclipsed into white emptiness until suddenly it was gone. Darkness swallowed all the light and heat, sucked the air out of your lungs as ice raced around your veins. In the blink of an eye they plunged into frigid darkness where no stars speckled the sky.
“Cahptaan!” Tongue was shouting, his voice now heavy with bass as if underwater. “Cn’t thee hhit!”
“It’ll pass!” Carolhano cried. “Just maintain course!”
Into the endless, disorientating dark the Aurai’s Gift crept on, floating in a silence where there was no up, no down…..
….. and then reality gasped! and the world returned. Rocky escarpments ringed the horizon and mesas rose like islands in the still, rolling ocean of wind sculpted sand dunes…..
* * *
…. And nothing happened.
In some ways that was worse.
Ankles wiped sweat from his brow and probed for some oddity, some inconsistency that would signal the onset of mad visions or a bending in reality. His senses found nothing. They rode on over the sand, and he was pleased when Carolhano joined him. She said nothing, her dark hair blowing in the wind. He fancied that she was staring the desert down, taunting it to do it’s worse.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
He followed her gaze. There was something…. no, someone standing on the dunes ahead.
“Who…..?” but the words trailed away as they came close enough to see that it was a statue. It was made of sand. As they sailed past he caught its expression of staring horror, the mouth opened in mute anguish.
And there were more. He could see them forming up, growing out of the sand. Worse, there were faces he recognised. Here an old friend, dead, and there a man he had shot during the Scar Gap raid. The man had been unarmed, but Ankles had pulled the trigger a split second too soon. He hadn’t meant to kill him. He looked away to see Carolhano staring, eyes fixed with faint horror.
“What are they?” Ankles asked in a near whisper.
“Bad memories,” and her eyes snapped to his. “Just bad memories.”
They ploughed on beneath a clear blue sky as Inari continued to climb towards his zenith.
Somewhere, someone was sobbing.
* * *
Carolhano slipped and a strong hand caught her. She looked up into the face of the man she had been sent to kill. The Imperial regiments might keep the peace, but it was the priesthoods that controlled the populace. So when a temple tried to make a bid for power it threatened to upset the apple cart. Here was one such man, and she had come to slip a knife into his heart.
His crime? He actually gave a damn! Imagine, a leader who thought that maybe there was a better way for everyone to live. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but then who was?
She’d still killed him. He was a dead man anyway, from the moment he made his stand, and it was her love for him that made it quick. The alternative was a slow, drawn out and dehumanising torture that would have robbed him of the very dignity he sought for others.
In the year that followed she had deserted the temple, gone rogue and found safe passage on a sand-glider much like the Aurai’s Gift.
“It’s been a long time, Carolhano,” said the ghost.
She turned away.
“Will you say nothing?”
“There is nothing to say.”
* * *
Ankles understood now. “Mind-thistle”. It was lodged like a barb, some invisible tendril piercing his skull and leaching his thoughts. It was a cold splinter in his head…..
….. he was in a market, not long after the captain had freed him. His ankles were bandaged, clean clothes on his back and a small roll of coin in his pouch. It had been his first share and while the Aurai’s Gift was in dock getting serviced, he was freed to roam the town at leisure.
A flurry of activity drew his attention and for a moment his instinct was to resist the flow of people, but this was not hostility, and he was not being taken away. He went with it and found himself in a square covered with brightly coloured awnings. At it’s centre people crowded a machine, whooping with delight. Intrigued, he pushed his way toward the spectacle.
It was a machine that turned precious water into ice. He paid his coin and received a cup of crushed ice, flavoured with fruit syrups. It was a delight. Sweet and cold, unlike anything he had experienced, just as the pain that came with it was unlike anything else. A burning cold clamped his head, thrust a finger into his brain, then passed away…..
…..it was a sensation that plagued him now as they sailed on through The Wrack.
It was torture.
* * *
Carolhano blinked. They were lost, she was sure. She looked around to see if she could find Tongue, but he was not at the tiller. The Aurai’s Gift roved on, unmanned. She had no idea how far they had travelled, no idea if they were even heading towards Irongate. Somewhere she thought she could hear someone calling her name…..
Turning, she looked out and saw nothing but endless sand. Where were they? The statues were gone, but there! What was that? A plant? Was the air thickening? Confusion crept around the edges of her mind. The desert was changing hue. Everything swayed and in a moment of panic she thought she couldn’t breath. They were underwater, and she should be drowning and by the gods! Fish! Fish were swimming past and all manner of bright and colourful things bobbing and darting and weaving….. little silver bullets that moved like flocks of birds, sleek and dark shapes that kinked and flexed with mouths seeking prey as frilled orbs with tendrils pulsed through the currents.
And she was not drowning……
She stared in wonder at a world both alien and beautiful, a world that had long since vanished. This was all just another memory, the memory of the desert itself……
With a gasp, she was back on deck, and the sound of voices calling her name.
“Where are we?” she croaked as a hand pulled her up. She looked into the smiling eyes of Ankles before her eyes roved to where Tongue held the tiller. The helmsman’s body was rigid and his eyes closed even as his lips moved. He might have been praying.
“Did you see……?” Ankles asked, his voice trailing as he sought to find the words.
Carolhano nodded. “It was an ocean. Or the ghost of an ocean.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.” She straightened and brushed herself down. She could feel it. It was fading, the whole damned freak show of a mad god’s desert was fading. They were out. She began to shout orders. “Check the instruments! Where are we? How long until the Sweep? And find out if anyone’s missing!”
* * *
Amid the disorientation they found Lewd bled out down below, but judging by the colour of the wound it was poison that had done him first. Bunches picked him up, almost delicately, and took him to the deck. Of Tornie there was no sign and Spool was actually asleep in the gunnery pod.
“Hey,” Ankles poked him, “Wake up.”
“Seriously? You sleep through that?”
Ankles was about to explain, but instead just shook his head. “Look sharp. We got a back stabber on board.”
Spool sniffed, fished out a cigarette. “Damn.”
Ankles left him smoking and carried on. Crapper was still trying to fix the rig, and Mend was checking on one of the priests entourage who’d become catatonic. Three others were missing, presumed lost in the Wrack. He told Carolhano as much as she stared off the stern where a gout of sand was following them.
“What the hell is that?”
“I thought the Mind-Thistle might’ve put it off,” she said absently.
She threw him a look, took a deep breath. “It’s a Farlight.”
“I thought those were just stories,” said Ankles. Farlights were said to burrow through sand and rock, their name derived from an eerie star light exuded from their mouths.
Carolhano turned to him. “They’re real alright. I’ve seen one before….. I…..”
“It doesn’t matter,” she waved it off. “Listen. The assassin has a lure hidden in the ship. When it gets close enough, it’ll attack.”
“You got a plan?”
She smiled at him. “Of course.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”
* * *
On deck Carolhano waited as her remaining crew corralled the priest’s blue clad menials with whatever weapons they had to hand.
“I really must protest!” the priest was shouting as he mopped his brow. “This really isn’t necessary, and furthermore…..”
She let him prattle on for a moment, then held up a hand. “One of your people is an assassin.”
As Carolhano explained, she enjoyed watching the bluster leave him like a leaking air bladder. “Someone wants your secret kept that way.”
“But – ”
She ignored him and spoke to the throng: “One of you is a killer. Luckily, you’re also an incompetent saboteur.”
Glances were exchanged as Carolhano scrutinised them.
“Of course, it didn’t take much to learn which one of you it is.”
She held up a small, emerald pendant that sparkled in the light. It bore an assassin’s sigil.
“Looks like you lost this.”
And there! She saw the surprised reaction, and so did Ankles, just like she’d told him. He had the woman up, arm behind her back while Bunches and Spool trained weapons on her. As Carolhano descended, the woman watched her with burning eyes.
“Where’s the lure, my dear?”
“I’ll never tell,” the woman snarled.
“You don’t have to,” Carolhano smiled. “It’s obvious.” She called Ankles over. “Check the priest’s donation box. The lure is in the box.”
The look on the assassin’s face was confirmation that her instincts had been right.
“How – ?”
“Just a hunch. I guess the delicious irony was just too much for you, so you hid it in the one thing we weren’t about to toss overboard. That’s twice today you’ve given yourself away.”
With a kick the woman broke free and sprang, blade out. The captain’s own dagger met it and their blades pressed together. As her men backed off Carolhano was face to face with the assassin.
“We should all be dead,” hissed the assassin.
“Speak for yourself,” Carolhano growled as the blades started to scrape.
“Especially you…. traitor!”
Carolhano shook her head. “I made a choice when I had to kill a man I loved. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Their arms strained, locked together. The first to give would be at the disadvantage.
“I don’t know how we made it through the Mind-Thistle, but you won’t reach Irongate.”
“You certainly wont,” Carolhano grated. She forced their blades into the air and gave the woman a hefty boot in the chest that sent her over the gunwale.
She and Ankles were already running to the stern where they caught a glimpse of the blue robe bright against the sand. The raging sand cloud behind went straight for it. A moment passed before a faint scream was eclipsed by something erupting from below, an ethereal light that winked out as jaws clamped shut.
The Farlight began to thrash the sand as it dwindled into the distance.
“How…?” said Ankles.
Carolhano flashed him a smile. “I snagged the lure on her robe when she attacked.”
“Will it follow?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s drawn to the lure.”
He nodded, and a grin of joyous relief split his face.
Together they began to laugh.
* * *
An hour later Ankles stood beside Carolhano on the foredeck, enjoying the wind on his face.
“Where did you get that pendant?” he asked presently.
The captain gave him an enigmatic smile. “Just another bad memory I had locked away in my cabin.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press further. They were alive, and that’s what counted. The rig was running again and they would just beat the Sweep. Irongate was only an hour away, and once safe, they would get the Aurai’s Gift repaired.
And then, he thought, we’ll find out if the priest was telling the truth.
Judging by recent events, he’d put money on it.
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