Madrik lay on his back, staring at the rich blue sky, praying for cloud to protect him from the morning sun. It was a hopeless prayer. The sand beneath him felt as if it had been baked for millennia without ever having experienced the sensation of rain soaking through it.
That was changing, more or less. But it wasn’t rain giving the dirt its first lesson in hydration. It was a rather more sticky substance of a crimson tone, and one that was particularly valuable to him. He really couldn’t afford to spare any more of it, especially as the heat of day began to settle in.
Madrik eased himself up onto his rear, groaning, and trying to hold all his wounds closed as he did so. There were too many of them.
“What the hell was that?” he asked the open air.
It had been a long night. A long week for that matter. Hell, it had been a long bloody life.
Renryre Island was two thirds desert, a hundred leagues of sand, shrubs, and death. And the occasional snake if you cared to look for it. No one in their right mind went into the desert, unless of course they were trying to get lost.
The rest of the island, squashed between the mountains and the sea, enjoyed rain every other day, and held a deep green ambiance all year round. That was where everyone lived. Towns and cities sprawled along the coast amongst the forests, living off fresh fish from the sea and fresh water running down the valleys. The mountains themselves ran like a vein down the west coast, cutting off the desert from the fertile lands, a literal line between life and death. A line that Madrik had crossed. Same time he crossed Tailfin.
The gangster had a reputation for making his problems go away. His competition too. Madrik was an entrepreneur; his plan was fool proof. But it turns out he was the fool. Tailfin got suspicious, and he removed the complication before it got… complicated.
Madrik had expected to be thrown to the sharks, alive or dead. Instead, Tailfin had packed him in a sack, taken him out to the desert, and left him there. Didn’t even bother opening the sack before he was on his way. Did bother to kick him a few more times and damn near break his ankle.
Madrik had a new plan. He would take down Tailfin. Cut him into pieces and throw him overboard, make certain. He wouldn’t make the same mistake Tailfin had, leaving him with a chance to survive. Well, half a chance. He had to make it out of the desert before he could take his revenge.
He checked his wounds, searching for any that looked to be life-threatening. They all looked bad, but what did he know?
Tailfin had left him one thing of use. The sack. Madrik had already used parts to wrap up his ankle, and he ripped off more pieces to try to bandage his wounds. He needed to rip off several strips to cover them all.
“What the hell was that?” he asked again.
He had been hobbling along through the night, his eyes open for any plants that might be edible, when out of nowhere something attacked him. He didn’t see it, didn’t hear it, had no idea it was there until he was already on the ground fighting for his life. Then, quick as it had arrived, the creature was gone.
Madrik had never heard of any such beast in the desert. As far as he knew, nothing bigger than a wild cat lived there, aside from the occasional snake, and they ate the cats. Judging by the deep wounds in his arms and chest, his attacker was the size of a giant tailshark. The bastards weren’t known to walk on dry land, but it was his best theory.
He stood up gingerly, yelping as his ankle struggled under his weight.
The scene hadn’t changed much since the previous sunset. Desert, in all directions, with the mountains in the distance to the west. He still wasn’t sure where the nearest coastline was. By the time he had gotten out of his sack, Tailfin’s tracks had been covered up by sand blown in the wind.
Madrik had picked south, and had been walking for two nights, taking shelter during the heat of the day. It was difficult to be certain that he had remained on course, the stars had been restless, and holding a straight line in the dark while the stars kept moving was no easy task.
He searched around for any sign of shelter. Maybe even an oasis, with a fireplace prepared and a lamb waiting, willing to sacrifice itself for dinner. The best he could find was a half dead tree with a trunk fat enough to lean on, but it would be no good by midday. He would need to keep moving until he could find something better. At least with the sun up, he could be certain which way he was facing.
Despite the pain in his ankle, he managed to make slow progress. The ground was hard, steady to walk on. He kept his eyes open for any tailsharks wandering around on two fins, or anything else that might have such big teeth. Coast was clear, as far as he could tell.
He was thirsty. His lips were cracking, his head was hurting, and his eyes were burning. He didn’t fancy his chances, not without a little divine intervention. By afternoon, his pains were thrice as bad, and no divine entities had bothered to intervene.
Then he heard something. He couldn’t see where it came from, but it sounded big. Sounded like a dog the size of a house warning a bigger one to back off.
It growled again, louder. It was right in front of him, he just couldn’t physically see it. He turned to run, realised he had forgotten about his ankle, and toppled over in a heap of groaning pain.
A vicious hiss sounded nearby, accompanying the growling. A cat? The size of a house? The damn things were right there but he still couldn’t see them. But he could tell, a giant invisible dog was about to fight a giant invisible cat. What the hell?
Then it happened. A cloud of dust burst from the ground, dirt being thrown in all directions. Half dead trees became all dead as they were trampled, trunks smashed under the weight of the beasts.
The snarling and hissing continued, yelps of pain. Madrik could do little more than back away on his one good leg, hoping to death that this wasn’t the divine intervention he had called for.
The fighting went on much longer than he would expect a couple of domestic pests to bother. He had suffered strays around his house often enough to know that the brawl was usually over by the time he tried to chase them away.
Soon enough, the fight went the way they usually did. The cat made a bloody noise, and then ran off into the distance. The dog was left behind, and Madrik could hear as it closed the distance between them. He could see the ground moving as its paws hit the dirt. It panted, wheezed even.
Madrik closed his eyes, ready to feel the giant teeth closing over his head. Instead, the beast sat down beside him, whimpering slightly. Madrik could feel its hot breath on his face.
He risked it, putting his hand out to touch the creature. He still couldn’t see it, but he knew its face was right there. He touched something warm, wet. Ran his hand along its nose, down to its mouth. It was sticky, with slobber or blood he couldn’t tell, his hand still looked dry.
He stood up, moved closer to the giant dog, running his hand along its face, to the side of its neck. Its hair was thick and long, the length of his arm perhaps. He kept following the dog’s body as it panted, pleased with its appraisal.
Madrik soon bumped into its leg, or its shoulder perhaps. It proved to be a ledge big enough to climb onto. Pulling on its hair, he made its way up the side of its body, and onto its back. He sat down, still holding onto hair, and the creature gently stood up, raising him some twenty feet into the air.
He could see the ground below him, right through the animal’s body. It looked like fresh air was the only thing between him and a painful landing on the desert below. He was pretty much flying he realised, except for the giant invisible dog beneath him.
“What the hell,” he said. “Let’s go, pup!”
The dog leapt and bounded off southwards, Madrik’s fists wrapped tightly into it’s hair. It was surprisingly easy to hang on, and he didn’t even need to struggle to look past the dog’s head to see where he was going.
His pains seemed to fade as they raced through the desert, southwards, towards the coast. At that pace, they would be there in no time, and he could find a boat and get back to dealing with Tailfin. When people asked where he had been, he might leave out the part about the giant invisible house pets fighting; he didn’t want to get thrown to the sharks as a lunatic. That was probably why no one had ever heard of them.
He looked to the south, searching for the coast. It must be there somewhere, they must be there soon. But he couldn’t see it, just more desert. And more beyond. It was late afternoon, and the dog had begun to tire. It soon slowed to a walk. Madrik searched the four horizons for signs of the coast. Just desert in three directions, and mountains to the west. The same view he had seen that morning.
The desert wasn’t that big, was it?
The dog eventually stopped walking, and sat down. Madrik slid down the side. He came off wet, covered in an invisible sticky substance. Sweat? Blood? Was it injured from the fight?
Suddenly, the dog leapt up, and bounded off. Madrik chased.
“Wait!” he shouted, but to no avail. “Dammit! That was my ride out of here. Dammit.”
He grabbed a rock and threw it after the dog. It likely got nowhere near, not that he could tell.
Angry, he turned around, stomping even with his dodgy ankle, and stormed off away from the dog.
Before him, not fifty yards away, there was clump of bright green trees. An oasis! He could have sworn it wasn’t there a moment earlier. He surely must have been able to see it from the dog’s back. Was he losing it? Was the desert sun taking its toll already?
He cautiously wandered towards the oasis, scanning for a trap. Perhaps more invisible beasts, waiting in ambush. He neared it, but nothing attacked.
He made it under the canopy, the thick trees blocking most of the sun, the soft dirt springy beneath him. He could hear running water, and losing control of his caution, he ran towards it as fast as his ankle would allow, dropping to his knees as he reached the stream. He drank deeply for what seemed to be half a day, and finally washed his face before sitting back.
He looked around him. It was exactly what he had imagined an oasis to be. Paradise in the desert. Lush green grasses and mosses on the ground, crawling up the tree trunks, and a dark green canopy above, with the sound of birds singing in the branches.
He stood up, and walked slowly along the stream, exploring his new paradise. Thoughts of returning home temporarily vanished, plans of revenge against Tailfin fading with them. Then he saw something that took him by surprise.
A fireplace. Surrounded by stones, neatly prepared. A small fire was burning, embers glowing. Soon ready to be used for cooking. Next to it a lamb, just standing there, looking back at him. Madrik could swear its lips moved. It was telling him to eat it.
“What the hell?” he asked, as if the lamb could answer.
“Divine intervention, perhaps?” a sweet voice from behind him.
Startled, he swung around to see a young woman waiting cautiously just out of reach. She wore the bare remnants of old clothing, just about covering the most important parts. The rest of her was the deep golden brown of someone spending years perfectly maturing in the sun. Her sun-bleached hair hung loose to her waist, crudely combed.
Madrik wasn’t stupid. Something was very wrong.
“I can help you treat those wounds,” she said. “Then we should eat, you must be hungry.”
Madrik gawked for a few more moments.
“Starving. But… how is this—”
“Unless there is something else you would like to do first?” she asked. “You know, I haven’t seen a man in a very long time…”
“Right…” muttered Madrik, eyes shifting.
“I am Lytette,” she said. “What’s your name?”
Madrik fumbled for words, but his tongue refused to cooperate. He glanced to the lamb, still waiting there patiently. Its lips were moving. He could have sworn it was mouthing the word trap!
“Let’s get you out of those clothes,” said Lytette.
She stepped forward, causing Madrik’s heart to race. His head was telling him to run, but nothing else was following.
Then she slapped him. One of those hits that come from nowhere, a great big swing of the arm planted perfectly on the cheek.
“Ow! What the hell?”
She did it again, harder even.
Once more, with enough power to flatten a mountain.
“Bloody hell, what are you—”
“I didn’t want to hear what you got up to with Lytette.”
Madrik blinked. Realised it was dark. And there was an old man leaning over him, his hand held ready to deliver another vicious slap. Madrik lay still a few more seconds, blinking rapidly. He sat up sharply, backing away, feeling the agony in his ankle, and all his wounds, which had been dressed. He looked around, confused. Then finally thought of something to say.
“You mumbled Lytette’s name, started smiling and making funny noises,” said the old man, “so I hit you before it got weird.”
“You were dreaming, yes. You are in fact still stuck in the desert, with little chance of surviving.”
“And you are—”
“That little chance of surviving I just mentioned, yes.”
“You were attacked by an ancient spirit of the desert,” he said. “He doesn’t like to kill, just to wound you and watch you suffer. His poison causes deep sleep, dreams, even hallucinations.”
“Lytette… she was just a dream?”
“Not exactly,” said the old man. “She is something worse. Or better perhaps, depending how your experience goes.”
“I don’t understand,” said Madrik.
The man shook his head and sighed with an irritated expression.
“People from the city should stay out of the desert, that’s all you need to understand.”
Madrik studied the old man. His skin a dark leather, hair rough, hanging around the neckline, silver from sun or age, or both. His clothes worn, repaired too many times. He had been in the desert for some time.
“I need to get back,” said Madrik.
“To Tailfin, right?”
“Right. Can you help me?”
“You need to take it easy, stay off your feet and heal. You would be better off staying with me until you are ready. I am compelled to help you.”
Madrik tried to relax, tried to allow his wounds to heal.
“This desert spirit…”
“Why did it attack me?”
The old man shrugged. Silly question?
“What did you see?” he asked. “What was in your dream?”
Madrik checked himself before answering. Even if it was a dream, it seemed a little silly.
“A giant dog. Invisible. Fighting a giant, eh… invisible cat.”
The old man nodded his head solemnly. He didn’t appear at all surprised, as if he had heard it all before.
” Lytette?” asked the old man.
“Afterwards,” said Madrik. “Once the dog ran off.”
Thoughtfully, the old man nodded again. “You should rest. When you are feeling better, I will help you get home.”
* * *
A few days later, Madrik was lying on his back, watching the stars restlessly wandering above him. One of them appeared to be chasing another. Halfway across the sky they sped before the chaser caught up, and then they both stopped. A few more stars gathered around them.
His ankle was much better already, the swelling having receded. His wounds likewise were healing well. He would soon be able to walk, and get out of the desert.
Nothing of note had happened since the old man had awoken him from his crazy dreams. Madrik had lain on his back while his succourer had fed him, checked his wounds, and occasionally spoken a few words. Thus far, their first night’s conversation had been the longest. He hadn’t even learnt his name.
Madrik wasn’t too concerned. He would be far from the desert soon enough, and on his way to see Tailfin. The old gangster would get what was coming to him.
The sun was beginning to brighten the sky, and the stars were settling down for the day. The old man was returning from wherever he had wandered off to. He produced something resembling a starved rabbit, and after skinning it, hung it over the fire.
Madrik wasn’t going to question the source, he ate it happily enough.
“You should get some sleep today,” said the old man. “Tonight we leave. We will make for Lexlish Pass.”
“Best way through the mountains.”
“Why don’t we head to the coast and catch a boat round?”
“I don’t take boats any more,” said the old man. “When I was young, I stole a boat and rowed over to the Renryre Island. Had a few too many in a tavern that night, followed those up with a few more. Next morning I woke up and the mainland was nowhere to be seen.”
Madrik didn’t push it. Old people and their stories of the mainland.
“Went searching for it for a while,” he continued. “Years in fact. Made a lot of friends, and lost most of them to the sea. The mainland is gone, and those who spend their lives looking for it die soon enough.”
“That’s why you are out here?” asked Madrik.
He only shrugged, and pulled the canopy over the camp site.
“Best you get some sleep.”
Madrik closed his eyes, hoping he would get a visit from Lytette. He opened his eyes barely a moment later as the evening was drawing the sun low, disappointed that he had spent his long dreams alone.
He sat up to find the camp site half packed already, the old man watching him impatiently. He took the hint and got up.
They set off following the sunset. Madrik hoped the old man could navigate the desert at night. By the sound of it, he had lived there for a decade or more, he probably knew the landmarks well enough.
They reached the mountains after a few nights’ walking. Most of the mountains in the range looked as dry as the desert, save for a single valley which spilt greenery into the sands below it. The way in. The only way, as far as Madrik could tell.
The climb was difficult. He would have struggled even if his ankle had been in perfect condition. The old man never complained. Didn’t say much at all, just grunted occasionally. It was not until they reached the top of the pass that he finally spoke.
“I’ve brought you this far, you can make your way to Helen from here,” he said.
He pointed towards the bay below. Helen’s Bay, the only safe haven for fisherman when the weather comes in. Overcrowded by far, the smell of fish and sewers mingled to create an almost unbearable stench, only cured when the wind blew. The fishing villages within the bay had grown over the years. They became towns, and before long they had all more or less merged into one large city skirting the inside of the bay, which somewhat unofficially became known as Helen.
“Best of luck with Tailfin.”
With that, the old man turned and wandered back the way he came. Madrik barely managed to scramble a meek thank-you.
Lost in thought, Madrik wandered towards the city. It was nice to be able to walk in daylight again. Somehow the sun didn’t feel so powerful on that side of the mountain.
His mind roamed the desert. The ancient spirit that attacked him. The adventure with the giant invisible beasts, even if they weren’t real. The oasis in the desert. Lytette, her golden skin and scant clothing lingering in his memory. Even after a night of rest in the lower slopes of the mountains, and another day en route to Helen, he couldn’t quite get Lytette out of his mind.
The old man hadn’t exactly clarified who Lytette was, only that she was more than just a dream. He hadn’t even clarified what his name was, for that matter. But Madrik supposed it was for the best. He couldn’t owe someone whose name he didn’t know.
He did owe Tailfin, and before he knew it, he had made his way to Tailfin’s headquarters. A gambling den. Where grown men went to waste their lives. Where criminals went to make new connections. Where city watchmen went to lose their meagre income. Where men like Madrik went when they thought they could outsmart the likes of Tailfin.
The door opened, and large man with too many muscles studied him with a look that suggested that it didn’t matter who was standing there, he would give them that dirty look anyway.
“What you want?”
“I’m here to see Tailfin,” said Madrik, trying to sound confident.
He hadn’t really planned this, he thought to himself. He was unarmed, and in Tailfin’s fortress. What exactly was he going to do? What was he going to say?
“He’s busy,” said the guard. “Go away.”
“He’s always busy,” said Madrik. “He’ll make time for me. Tell him Madrik is here to see him.”
The guard looked a little unsure, and then walked off into the back office. He came back shortly, and waved him over.
Madrik entered the office to see Tailfin sitting at his desk, and more brawny guards standing around the room looking as intimidating as they could.
“Madrik?” said Tailfin. “How nice to see you. You look like hell. What happened to you?”
“You threw me in a sack and dropped me off in the desert, after a few complimentary kicks.”
“Well, yes, I know that,” said Tailfin evenly. “I meant, what happened to you since the last time I saw you.”
“I survived,” said Madrik. “Made it out of the desert alive.”
“With the sole purpose of wasting my time?” he asked impatiently. “What do you want?”
“And this was your plan?” said Tailfin. “To ambush me from the front, with my guards standing ready?”
Dammit. What was his plan? Tailfin appeared completely unconcerned that Madrik had made it, perhaps he wasn’t the first to survive the desert trip. He had expected that Tailfin would at least be surprised. Instead, he appeared a little impatient and annoyed. Tailfin would have him escorted out in no time, probably back to the desert.
Madrik laughed out loud.
“Well, of course not,” he said. “I was just here to show you that I am alive and well, so that you knew I may be working on a revenge plan. It’s not like I am going to jump one of your guards, steal his blade, and throw it at you!”
But that’s exactly what he did.
He leapt to the nearest guard, punching him on the nose, and pushing him back as he grabbed a dagger from the brute’s belt. He turned quickly, took half a moment to aim, and flung the blade straight at Tailfin.
It hit the wall about a foot to his left.
“Dammit,” he said as the room froze.
“Indeed,” said Tailfin. “That was rash.”
He felt a thud on the back of his head, and fell over.
When he came to, he found he couldn’t move. He was wrapped up in some sort of linen. A sack!
“Tailfin?” he called out, as if he didn’t know what was happening.
“Where am I?”
“You are in the desert, Madrik.”
He felt a kick to the belly, another to the head, a few more wherever they landed. He could hear the men chuckling as they did it. When they stopped kicking, he groaned a question.
“Why don’t you just kill me?”
“I am intrigued to see what your next revenge plan may be, should you survive again. I rather hope it’s a little better thought out. You might even consider taking a bath before confronting me, you know, showing a little respect. Besides, I find it boring killing idiots. Good luck to you, Madrik.”
Madrik heard the footsteps fade away. He struggled with the sack to get it open, eventually breaking free. He could see Tailfin and his men walking in the distance. All around him, desert. The mountains far to the west. Same place he had been dropped off the last time.
His ankle wasn’t hurt. This time it was something worse. Each ankle had an iron shackle locked around it, with a heavy metal ball joined on half a foot of chain.
He took one step forward, the ball dragging through the sand. He could barely move his feet. Wouldn’t be able to walk a league in a day. Wouldn’t be able to run from anything.
He really should consider not going up against Tailfin again, he thought. That is, if he could make it out the desert alive again. Where was the old man when you needed him? What was his name?
He scanned around him, looking for anything that might help, a possible salvation. He didn’t have a clue what to do, or where to go, even if he could move. He was at the mercy of the desert once again.
Thank you for reading Renryre Island Chapter I: The Bloodied Sands
Next, Chapter II: The Impossible Job
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