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The Desert Crystals – Part 27: Fragile Things

Desert Crystals Part 27 – Fragile Things

DesertCrystals7Flesh and fat hissed in the darkness. Bones cracked, sending a burst of sparks up into the night sky. The makeshift pyres would burn till dawn when the sun’s fierce heat took over. By then the scavenged wood and tumbled Skymates would be dark ash muddled into the red sands. For now the fire lit the faces of Growlbrin Taqua and Brenhitch Taqua (the latter’s surname granted by his apprenticeship to the former). Their business was precisely this, the proper disposal of mortal remains. For three years now Brenhitch had accompanied his master in his erratic, winding journeys across and around the Great Bane Desert.

In that time he’d learned rather more about survival in the sands and how Growlbrin liked his tea than he had the burning of bodies. This was no great surprise, the Taqua’s had always been wanderers, their duty the final safety of travellers rather than those whose likely places of death were towns or villages. Those stationary ends were well provided for already. The Taquas tracked lone madmen through the desert or followed the aerial paths of skyships in case of accident, attack or age. Brenhitch often wondered if there were other Taquas following them as they trudged across the blazing landscape. For now he stood watching the blaze and leaned on his long pole with its meshed metal net, pondering the death of so many aeronauts. His hand returned of its own accord to the journal he carried, its touch oddly reassuring in the face of such loss.

Prior to the last few days it had been a full year since the wandering pair of master and apprentice had come across a death. That last had been a man they’d tracked from out of Gross Nigh at the base of the mountains. He’d set off with just a pack of supplies and a Candy Beetle to carry him. There had been little doubt he would die, and the locals had supposed that was his purpose in setting out so wilfully unprepared. Still, he’d survived for five weeks, using the Candy Beetle’s uncanny ability to locate sweetmeats of the desert to maintain himself and his mount. At times the Taquas had followed just hours behind him, tidying the burrows and roots unearthed by the beetle, returning them to their natural buried and hidden state. It would not do to have the desert’s bounty laid waste by its scouring winds.

One evening the Taquas camped just a dune’s breadth from where the man had erected his lean-to. He had set it out in the desert way by stretching a canvas between the legs of the beetle and allowing the Candy Beetle to half bury itself in the sands with the traveller beneath its shiny belly. Growlbrin had been content to take his tea and retire to his bunk inside their Caravan Beetle. Brenhitch had been left awake as the sky turned purple and orange, gazing at the emerging stars. As he lay on their beetle’s broad shell a man’s voice rose high and strident from across the dune. The words themselves were lost in the constant susurration of the sands but Brenhitch was young, bored and awake so he scrambled up the sandy bank until he could lie above the man’s camp, and listen.

The man paced unsteadily upon his docile mount’s flat back, feet slapping on the huge coloured swirls that characterised the beast’s curious appearance. He was either drunk or sand-mad by his swaying, as well as that he was fairly bellowing as he read from a slender leathery notebook. It was poetry, of a sort, filled with anguish and shame. Brenhitch lay for hours listening to the fellow’s story of his life, expressed in verse, tears and angry shouts. Finally he nearly fell from his steed and in doing so realised he was standing in the darkness, declaiming his tale by starlight to an uncaring desert, not to mention to those predators that haunted its night. He shambled within his tent and Brenhitch returned to the caravan.

Next day they found the man dead. His camp was where it had been the night before, save that the Candy Beetle, sensing its owner’s death and responding to its own instincts had unearthed itself and begun its gruesome task (from which it was named) of flensing the corpse for its sweetmeats. Growlbrin burst over the ridge with a roar and rattling his staff of bells and screeching Song-Ants. The cacophany of brass and insect startled the Candy Beetle from its business. In a sudden panic it tore loose the bags and canvas that hung from its limbs and fled into the desert. The poet (as Brenhitch now thought of him) was scattered, a neat pile of skin and fat separated from the bloody bones awaiting the beetle’s further attention.

Brenhitch set to work making a neat stack of the dead man’s possessions, piling clothing, canvas tent and travelling writer’s desk and the ephemera of life on top of each other. The remaining water bottles and provisions he transferred to their caravan. He found a tiny empty bottle in the blankets, which sharply burned at his nostrils when he sniffed it. Growlbrin abruptly slapped it from his hand, murmuring “he may have chosen to take his own life, but he’d no plan for denying you yours.” Suitably chastened, Brenhitch added the phial to the meagre pile. While he was unattended he slipped the dead man’s notebook into his pocket.

Meanwhile Growlbrin drew on his claw-tipped black leather gloves and peeling apart the glistening meat of the man’s disarrayed corpse, peering into organs and beneath bone. Finally he grunted with satisfaction and withdrew from the man’s throat. Between two black claws was a marble-sized, golden bead. He cleaned it of blood and dropped it into one of the dozens of tiny bottles that chattered against each other on the bandolier that wrapped about his broad chest. Growlbrin took pen and ledger from an inside pocket to record the man’s place and date of death and the colour of his bead. Finally he scrawled a matching number onto the bottle and gestured to his apprentice. Brenhitch dragged the man onto the makeshift pyre and wrapped him up in the walls of his tent. That night they ignited the canvas.

Now, a year later Growlbrin watched the remains of the crashed airship burning, its fallen crew laid atop their own bunks and wrapped in the garish balloon that had apparently failed to keep them aloft. Fifteen men and women had met their end up in the skies. Though he’d said nothing to the boy, the ship’s hull showed signs of violence and the man they’d found first had clearly been shot in the chest. The manner of their death didn’t affect the Taquas’ duties however, though he’d record his suspicions and the name of their vessel, The Golden Zephyr. Brenhitch stood by his side, also staring into the flames, watching for the glint of the crew’s soul-beads in the fire, ready to scoop them out. He thought it likely they’d be sifting through ash in the morning.

Next Week: Part 28 – Easy Ways to Die

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