For a fortnight, the sun had beaten ruthlessly upon the land; but this morning, turbulent clouds overtook the sky. Though they offered relief and softened the glare of the sand, a sense of unease grew upon the band of travelers. Something felt wrong; it seemed as though the very air held its breath.
Suddenly, a field of bones rolled out before them, lying not as scattered remains of an unearthed grave, but as complete skeletons stripped of skin and muscle.
The leader of the party, a man called Amnor, stood from observing the nearest corpse, which lay sprawled upon the road as though struck in the midst of fleeing. “Only dry bones remain,” he said, gripping an unscathed rib bone, “and not one is broken or cracked.” He pressed the rib against his thigh, snapping it only after an effort. The center was still red with marrow.
No one spoke as they continued along their path, alert to the surrounding wilderness.
Far overhead the boiling clouds took on a color of sickness. Jeb and Halian, two young members of the group, continuously glanced skyward; Amnor and a strange armed woman, Mairi, kept their eyes ahead, faces betraying perplexity and perhaps fear. Avasa, Amnor’s sister and the youngest of the group, glanced nervously between each of her compatriots. Rain had not graced these lands in their lifetimes, Amnor had said. Dread not entirely from the mystery of the bones tightened iron fingers on the girl’s heart.
At length, they came upon what might once have been a village. Partially decayed stone blocks stacked atop each other produced the outline of homes, walls, a well, irrigation canals. Withered crops and shrubs poked from the sand. Nothing stirred within the ruin, not a lizard or a sand spider. A pale dust, like smoke or miniscule sand particles, drifted upon the air.
They followed a once-paved pathway into the village and noted a sudden increase of bones. They cluttered the streets, the fields, the interiors of roofless buildings. A foul stench lay upon the place, whether of rotted flesh or something else, they could not say.
Avasa poked her head inside the first crumbling home. Nothing less durable than stone remained; and even that was pocked with holes. All appeared in one stage or another of decay.
She felt as though she had stepped into the past and now explored some ancient ruin; yet the crops, the stench, and the marrow in the bones confirmed this town had lived not long ago.
A queer mood came upon her then. Each step she took suffocated in utter silence. The dry mist dampened her sight. Her feet began to stumble and her eyelids grew heavy, though dusk was still hours away. She felt a grip upon her arm, and somewhere in the depths of her mind, Mairi’s words languished without meaning: “Avasa, you must stay awake. It’s taking her, Amnor!”
Her consciousness then plunged into turmoil. She struggled against it, though she knew not what she battled or why. She saw Mairi running, felt her pulling Avasa along. Everything looked stood up on its side, as though she ran sideways along the wall. Her vision faded to black, and she heard many fell voices speaking at once in a language she did not understand. Terror pierced every part of her, yet she felt paralyzed. She could not run from it or fight it or cry out. Images of fire burned across the blackness, and a pouring rain which fed the fire. A voice screamed somewhere far away. The voices of her companions, shouting to each other, cut through all else.
Her body slammed to the floor, and her sight returned. She gagged on the stench of burning and decay. Voices cried out in pain, and from some unknown distance Amnor was shouting, “Under the table!”
Above all there was a noise like rushing wind, or an approaching sandstorm. But when she looked, she saw rain. She gazed out in wonder upon the liquid deluge she recognized only from legend; but a sense of death remained. The rain bore the same sickly green as the clouds from which it fell.
As more and more she returned to herself, she saw she sat beneath a slab of stone, perhaps a table. Mairi hissed from beside her, tearing open what appeared a burned hole in one leg of her trousers. The skin underneath had acquired a deep pink-black wound, charred so it could not bleed. “What happened?” Avasa asked, reaching by instinct for one of the medicines in her pack.
“The rain. It burns like fire. Some new devilry,” she added through clenched teeth. “Are you well?”
“I suppose I am now.”
As if in answer to Avasa’s unasked question, the older woman indicated the exposed interior of the house and the village outside. The rain had already ceased. “The dust still hangs in the air,” said Mairi. “Here on the floor we are beneath its reach, but we must find the others. Cover your face. Do not breathe it in. I fear it is of the same source as the rain.”
They found the men inside neighboring houses, emerging from beneath stone tables. They sat on the floor, bowing beneath the dust, and Avasa and Mairi tended their wounds. Then they stood, pulling scarves across their faces, and ran until the village was but a dune of stones far behind them. The clouds rolled away, the bright desert seemingly returned to itself. They rested only for a moment. “Come,” Amnor said. “We must put behind us as many miles as possible before nightfall.”