The tall, burly, black-haired scout wearing a crimson stilk uniform trimmed with gold wades slowly through the slippery muck of the swamp, placing each foot carefully. His feet are shod in sturdy black stilk hiking boots. A large dagger rides his right hip. Matching bandoliers studded with sharp-edged throwing-stars criss-cross his chest. An unadorned, broad-brimmed, flat-topped hat of black stilk crowns his head. Sweat beads his brows, dripping into his jade-green eyes. The thick humidity makes it hard to breathe. He gently probes the pathway with the perfectly balanced wooden eight-foot long pole-arm boasting a spiked butt and a war-hammer/axe top he holds in his right hand. His free hand monotonously swishes buzzing insects away from his mouth and nose. He freezes in place as the ground shudders. Something trumpets loudly and a dimly seen large form splashes through the surrounding trees. “Merrp!” The knee-high mottled grey forest cat beside him growls hungrily, tail twitching.
“I think not Stalker, it’s a little too big for you to handle.” Zain Kutayen waits patiently for the sauropod to move away. He steps forward, counting forty-three paces. The air in front of him shimmers iridescently as though he stands inside a giant soap-bubble. Cautiously he slides a hand through the interface, popping it. Step, the cat paces beside him.
A knife cold wind slices through his clothing. His breath steams in the gelid air. Snow pelts him, falling heavily from the overcast arctic sky. The frigid tundra stretches as far as his eyes can see in all directions. Something howls angrily in the distance. “Merowt!” The cat complains his fur fluffed out.
“I agree. Don’t worry Stalker we won’t be here long.” Zain reassures him. He starts turning in a circle. He traces a hundred and eighty degrees when he stops. There! The City lies in that direction. He pauses and frowns. His sense of the City is strangely muted, as though he is… Unanchored, but no, he won’t even contemplate such a thing! He stabs the pole-arm erect into the frozen soil, ready to hand. He pulls a slender marker from the quiver on his back. Several powerful blows with the mallet hanging from his belt drive it into the ground. Zain checks to make sure that the rigid yellow flag points in the correct direction. A dozen paces and a shimmering golden metallic curtain appeared. He sweeps it out of the way. Step.
Black sand forms the coastline of a wine-dark sea. The susurrus of the waves beats steadily against the shore. Gulls swoop and dive, screeching from the brilliant blue sky. Crabs scuttle across the beach. “Purrt.” The cat sniffs disdainfully at them. Heat waves dance over the dunes that recede to the horizon. A huge triangular fin cuts through the brine. Turn and stop at seventy-five degrees. The City sense is even weaker now. Something is seriously wrong, urgency fills him. Hurry. Hammer in a marker. Twenty-four paces. The wavering mirage of an oasis. Stride forward, it vanishes. Step.
Tenebrous light of a triple canopy jungle. Reek of rot and decay. Screeching and chattering from the depths. Snarl of a tiger. “GRRR!” The cat rumbles.
“No time for that Stalker.” Turn and stop at two hundred five and a half degrees. Hammer a marker. Quickly now. A hundred and eleven paces. Wall of glimmering red crystal. Shatter it. Step.
The asphalt paved road leading to the City. Pyrefort shines whitely. The gleaming crystal force field encases Nydorwen’s sole remaining city protectively from the Chaos Storms created by the Rupturing. One such storm looms on the horizon, black and purple clouds swirling ominously. The distant mountains of bleached brown rock are a barren expanse from which all life long since been sucked dry. The landscape before them is a mottled patchwork of differently colored spots scattered about randomly.
Zain straightens his travel-stained uniform and marches hastily towards Pyrefort. He halts in front of the gate. He salutes the guards standing to either side. “Scout Captain Zain Kutayen, leading Fourth Company Exploratory Corps, reporting.” The roadway quavers behind him and the company appears out of nothingness.
The left-hand guard returns his salute, pulling the bell rope. Clang. The gates silently swung open. “You may pass sir.” Zain waves Fourth Company ahead. They rumble and clatter into the courtyard. The gates close smoothly.
A tall, slender man, finely dressed in white clothing, golden hair laced with silver, with patrician features and swollen, red-rimmed blue eyes waits anxiously at the edge of courtyard. He glides forward. “Zain my boy, thank the Stars you made it back!” He proclaims in a resonant bass. “We were so worried about you being out in the Discontinuity without an Anchor.” He hugs the younger, head-taller man enthusiastically.
Zain tentatively returns the embrace. “Thank you Lord Deova. What happened to Jhemal?” He asks anxiously.
Lord Deova’s face is lined with grief. “I’m afraid he passed away five hours ago. He held on as long as he could for you, but the cancer came back. This time it spread throughout his body.”
Zain stiffens, the sorrow he has denied striking him a body blow. “I should have been here.” He says regretfully.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference. The Healers swear that nothing could have helped.”
“I could have tried.” Zain chokes out, tears tracking his dust-covered face.”
“You had already been gone for two months before the first symptoms exhibited themselves. The only mercy was that his suffering was short.”
“I’ll miss him. He was my friend.” Zain sobs.
“Purr.” Stalker vibrates, rubbing against him comfortingly. Zain rubs his ears.
“You were a good friend to him. Thanks to you he lived ten years longer than he might have.” Lord Deova lays a comforting arm across the weeping man’s shoulders. “Come, you’ll stay with us for a while.” He leads Zain away.
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GLOSSARY OF TERMS:
Anchor: Someone with a strong psychic connection to another person which allows their partner to navigate the Discontinuity and safely return to the City.
Chaos Storms: Storms formed by uncontrolled Primal Magic streams joining, capable of transpositioning terrain.
The Discontinuity: The world outside the City after the Rupturing consisting of patches of landscape intermingled randomly and subject to spontaneous alteration.
The Rupturing: The uncontrolled release of Primal Magic resulting in the destruction of the world as it was, the creation of the Discontinuity, and the release of Chaos Storms.
Stilk: Fabric with the strength of steel and the flexibility and lightness of silk.
In response to From A Photo Short Story Prompt – June 20,2014