by Robert Currer

Part 1 of 4 – 1200 Words

Sword out, a skeleton clad in strips of rotted leather charged down the dune rise, riding the tumbling soil like a wave.  Rivulets of sand still streamed from the hate filled ocular voids of its ivory skull.  It keened but the howl was swallowed by a boom of thunder so close that the very earth quivered.  The Scrap Knight sidestepped the wild arc of the rust flecked short sword and swung hard with his own notched sickle.  His tattered, canvas poncho lifted from his sides as he spun like a soiled blossom.

With a crash, the skeleton was no more.  Moldering bones scattered to the wind and not a moment too soon.  Cracks of violet lightning were pounding the wrinkled hillsides for miles around with increasing ferocity.  From each of the impact sites, ancient bones dragged themselves from the soil.  They clattered like spilling dominoes as they assembled into hordes of the hungry dead. 

Far too many gathered on the bunched slopes to think of slipping by unnoticed.  Though the Scrap Knight could move with uncommon quiet when he wished, the randomness of their roaming stacked the odds against him and very soon their numbers would swell so that even a single encounter would attract a lethal swarm.

The Scrap Knight paused but a moment, weighing his options with icy composure.  Danger gifts clarity to those who would receive it and the Knight was open to any and all charity in his present predicament.  A single path laid itself before him: retreat and hide until the storm passed and the dead became ornaments upon the sand once more.

He backed cautiously away from the spill of bones keeping his eyes on them in case their animus had not completely extinguished.  They did not stir but he was in no mood to take chances.  He stooped and swept up the dead thing’s sword before turning toward a promising outcropping. 

When he was nearly to the piled stones, his jog slowed to a walk and then to a hunched stalking stride.  He circled the mound scanning left and right, up and down for the smallest tingling of threat.  Purple lightning struck the hills all around, but none struck here.  His circuitous path instead bore fruit in the form of a tight, dark opening that hinted at a hollow beneath the mound.  With any luck (not that he ever had much luck) there would be room enough for him to slither out of sight until the morning.  A tickle of hope fluttered in his chest.  Hope, taken in excess, could be more dangerous than fear and he did his best to keep his small.

With steps so quiet they would have made a hunting panther blush with embarrassment, the Scrap Knight crept toward the opening.  Flashes of lightning illuminated all the world around for miles in frozen strobing frames, but not the opening.  Sheltered as it was by the leaning stones, it kept its secrets even against the low honey glow of the Knight’s eyes.

He was up against the rough sandstone boulder now, just to the side of the opening which came no higher than his knee.  The Scrap Knight tucked his sickle into his belt and tested his grip on the newly found short sword.  Its straight, vicious blade would serve him better than the sickle’s hook if the opening remained narrow for any distance.  He squatted, readied himself, and then whipped into the opening poised to strike.

The Scrap Knight was quicker than most but that night, he was not nearly quick enough.  Hands like gauze wrapped steel gripped his shoulders and sucked him into the hollow headfirst.  He was hurled to the ground and, before he could recover his wits, the sword was kicked from him.  Gauzed hands flipped him to his back with rough efficiency and a boney, swollen knee pressed into his chest.  A honed blade was thrust against the rind flesh beneath his chin.  Above him, a grey face wreathed in shadow pressed a finger to its lips for silence.

Dark wet eyes studied the Scrap Knight’s face, first the flickering candle yellow of his scowling eyes, then the pumpkin grooves of his cheeks, and finally the clenched slash of his lipless mouth.  For a long, tense moment those eyes deliberated.  Then the shrouded figure withdrew and moved to the other side of the cramped cave to sit silently against the wall, arms folded.  He bowed his head and waited so still that the Scrap Knight wondered if he might be sleeping until he buried his mouth in the crook of his arm to stifle a rasping cough.  The Scrap Knight settled into a corner of his own where he could watch the opening and the grey stranger.

The storm quieted after midnight while the dark was still tar under the new moon.  The stillness that followed felt like spun sugar, sweet but frail.  And so, the Scrap Knight and the grey man said nothing and waited for quiet to thicken into peace.  The first rose-colored rays of dawn were kissing the blackened bottoms of the heavy blanketing clouds when finally, the pair emerged from their burrow.

“This way,” said the grey man in a voice like wind over sand.  The man turned and scurried up the nearest slope.  Even in the morning light, he was difficult to follow with the eyes as he had wrapped himself in a peculiar cloak.  It was the granular, rusted khaki of the desert stone and patched with bristled tufts of grey-green protrusions that allowed him to appear as a simple desert shrub whenever he grew still. 

The Scrap Knight had a passing wonder as to why a man with such a cloak would bother hiding in a hollow, but he brushed the question away.  It was probably no guarantee of safety when one suffered human frailties like needing sleep.  He looked up at the foreboding cloud cover.  He would not want to spend a night in the open under those skies either, even with such a clever cloak.  And it really was a very clever cloak.  Perhaps the man would show him how to make his own.

Presently, they came to the top of a razor ridge.  “There,” said the man in his windy way.  He raised a wrapped finger and pointed to another rise only a mile or two ahead.  On it rested another jumble of stones that, after a moment’s reflection, the Scrap Knight realized were actually the ruins of a short tower. 

The man did not wait for consensus but began a sliding descent down other side of the ridge toward the ruins.  Strictly speaking, this was not in the direction of the dawn, the Scrap Knight’s ultimate destination, but it was also not not in the direction of the dawn.  It was perhaps a more scenic route than he had initially intended. 

And enigma swaddled the camouflaged man in a way that tugged determinedly at the Scrap Knight’s curiosity.  Who was this hermit who seemingly lived in these badlands?  The Scrap Knight discovered with some surprise that he wanted to know.  He surveyed the solid cloud cliffs amassing above the horizon.  A new storm, darker than the last, was forming.  This would not be the night to risk getting caught in the tempest.  With that decided, he jogged down the ridge after the camouflaged man.

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