Excerpt: Sand Raiders

Maika led the ground raid through the caravan, slogging across the sand and breathing carefully through the fabric across his nose and mouth. He kept a gun in his right hand and a sharp sword in his left, and he killed anyone who resisted. The sand was sticky with the spray of blood, the air full of dust and the broken screams of the dying.

Dust demons tore open packs, strewing goods everywhere to be picked through at leisure. They shrieked and devoured anything unprotected—sucking up every last vestige of moisture and leaving behind dust. The demons were forever changing, coalescing into giant, twisting, many-limbed shapes of dust and wind, breaking apart into many smaller demons that would almost look human if they were opaque.

This had been a big caravan, fat and slow with the sand sledges, ripe for the picking. Their hired guards had been nothing before the sand raiders and the dust demons that now ringed them so none could escape. Maika shouted orders, spreading fighters through the caravan to gather up the plunder.

A sharp whistle caught his attention, and Maika looked up to the Dust Rider. Lavrenti lounged on a towering dust demon’s broad shoulder, keeping watch over everything from a safe distance, all tall leather boots and long rifle beside the huge demon’s ever-twisting face. Lavrenti pointed two fingers to the south, thumb down, indicating a problem. Maika nodded his understanding and broke into a careful jog across the loose sand.

The problem was a small man, arms spread as he chanted a ward against the dust demons. He protected one small sledge and its contents, but the beast that had pulled it had gotten too close to the demons. It was nothing but desiccated bones and dust now. Lavrenti could easily command the dust demons to crush the small man as well, but not without destroying whatever was in the sledge. He might last hours before his power failed, and they did not have hours to wait.

A magical ward was no protection against another human, though. Maika stepped through into the still air that surrounded the man and his sledge, and the man’s steady incantation faltered into an adorable squeak. The ward held—he had some presence of mind even as he trembled and stared up at Maika. Maika knew the picture he made: pistol in one hand and blood-drenched sword in the other, covered in dusty fabric so only his deep brown eyes showed. He could have shot the little man and let the dust demons strip him to bones and dust.

“Not the plants.” The man lifted his frightened eyes to meet Maika’s. “Not my plants; don’t let the demons kill my saplings…” It took a special kind of person to first beg for something other than their life, and Maika hesitated. He didn’t raise his gun as he stepped closer.

“Please, I’m harmless. I’m bringing a gift to the palace of the Pivael. Fruit trees for the prince’s pleasure garden. Don’t hurt my trees.”

Oh, he certainly was a gift. He was soft and delicate, round in the best sort of way with gleaming golden brown skin touched with a faint dusting of freckles across his nose. His eyes were narrow and beautiful, bright shining bronze with a touch of gray-green hazel. His lips were a soft pink bow. Pretty little man. There was no doubt what sort of use he’d be put to in a princeling’s pleasure garden—on his knees but not to tend his plants, whether he liked it or not.

Maika tucked his pistol into his belt and unfastened a turn of his dust covering so the cloth fell free of his face to talk. The little man drew in a sharp gasp through his nose, taking him in. Maika’s broad nose had been broken too many times to ever sit straight, and his face was marked with an old knife scar that twisted one corner of his full lips up into a permanent sneer. He smiled, though it would hardly be reassuring with a bloody sword still in his other hand.

“Gardener? What kind of fruit?” Maika asked.

“Horticulturalist!” the little man protested hotly, a bit of pride and temper, even staring into the face of death. “Honey persimmons and wine-blood pomegranates. These cultivars are my life’s work, please…”

Maika carefully stepped past the man to glance into his little sledge, keeping half an eye on him in case he decided to attack after all. They certainly looked like lovingly cared for saplings. They were in small pots lined up in neat rows. Maika took the man’s hand, wrapping his own darker brown fingers around the small man’s soft hand. He made another little squeak at that, but did not pull away. Maika turned the man’s hand over, inspecting the calluses he would expect to find on someone who worked with their hands. Satisfied, he turned the hand back over and ran the ball of his thumb across the soft skin of the back of it.

“I’m Maika,” Maika introduced himself, watching the heat of a blush flood the still-trembling little man’s cheeks.

“D-Dani,” the gardener stuttered. Dani. A pretty little name for a pretty little man.

“Dani, do you want to live?” Maika asked. He heard the clear-up whistle as Lavrenti decided they’d gathered all they would and it was time to leave.

“Yes.” Dani’s voice shook and his beautiful eyes were full of tears. “Yes, very much, please. And my trees. I’ll d-do anything.”

Maika tucked his cloth back around his face to protect his nose and mouth and pulled Dani close. He wrapped one loose sleeve across Dani’s mouth so the spells woven into the fabric would protect him from the dust and desiccation. Dani didn’t fight him, a beautiful squishy little armful to squeeze. Maika might have held him a touch closer and tighter than he needed to.

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