A Rayn Mirago Novel #2
Sojourn: The Deadlands
by B.D. Messick
A wasteland of burning sun and shifting sands that stretches for more than a thousand miles from the foot of the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. The once vibrant Great Plains of the former United States is little more than a bleak and barren desert, a blasted landscape that holds only sad reminders of what has been lost.
Rayn and Luk must brave the perils of this arid land of fierce beasts, savage sandstorms, and hidden dangers if they're going to reach the Beastlands beyond. They will encounter new enemies, and discover precious new allies.
Rayn's suspicions about the results of Luk's Sojourn Lottery continues to grow, but she must put those doubts aside if they have any chance of surviving what's coming. The Deadlands will push them to their breaking points while testing the strength of their bond.
Their only goal: Survival.
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We're making good progress across the seemingly endless and ever shifting sands. Luk is a few yards ahead following directly behind Grit as he performs his usual scouting technique of sniff, dig, and look. Luk reaches the top of a large dune and turns his head to look at me, and even though I know he’s exhausted he still has a quick smile.
I return the gesture, but it fades away as the head of a worm slithers out of the sand and clamps onto his leg. He screams out in pain as he pulls his knife and starts slashing at the creature. I start scrambling up the hill towards him, but the sand keeps shifting, and the more I struggle against it the further I slide back down.
“Luk!” I scream, my throat dry and painful.
Another worm emerges and wraps itself around his other leg, throwing him off balance and pulling him down.
I need to get up there. I need to save him! I yell at myself inside my own head.
Luk struggles with his attackers, slashing and stabbing at them with his knife until two more worms emerge and coil themselves around his arm. Just as they did with Raven, they work together as they slowly begin to pull him under the sand. I strip off my pack and start crawling up the dune on my hands and knees. I suddenly realize that I've been screaming Luk’s name over and over again as I struggle to reach him. By the time I get to the top of the hill only his left hand and the top of his head are still visible. I grab his fingers and start pulling, digging my heels into the sand. Slowly, his head emerges, sand in his hair and crusted to his face. I brush the particles away from his mouth and nose as I continue pulling with my other hand.
“Luk! Luk, are you okay?” I plead as tears stream down my face.
His eyes pop open and he takes a deep breath, but then his jaw slowly drops. He looks like he wants to say something, but no words come out. I lean down next to him.
“What? What is it?” My hands are shaking uncontrollably.
His mouth opens a little wider and suddenly a huge worm leaps out from between his teeth and lunges at me. I wake up screaming, thrashing my arms at something that’s not there and wailing in terror. The scream is from a place so dark and so deep down inside me that it feels like it's ripping my body in half. I don’t know how long I shriek, but I eventually realize that Luk’s arms are wrapped around me and he's slowly rocking us back and forth. My eyes focus on the cold grey walls of the tunnel, our little campfire and finally on Luk himself. I concentrate on his face, the way his hair falls over his forehead, the brightness of his piercing green eyes, and the strength I can feel in his arms. Bit by bit, I make myself calm down, using him as my anchor.
“It’s okay,” he says gently as he continues to hold me.
I gradually force my breathing to slow and my heartbeat to ease up a little and within a few minutes I'm composed enough to speak.
“I’m all right,” I reply quietly, although it’s only a half-truth.
“Are you sure?” as he reluctantly releases me.
I wipe away a few tears and offer him a weak little smile.
I watch him as he reaches over and picks up one of the loose water bottles sitting by his pack. He holds it out for me and I take it with a grateful and more honest expression.
I take a small sip of water.
“You’re welcome. Bad dream?”
I just nod, still trying to exile the last bits of it from my mind.
“The worst,” I say quietly before reaching out and taking his hand, feeling like I need the concrete physical contact to finally break the dark spell.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I know that he means well, but the last thing I want to do is to relive it so soon.
“Not right now, maybe later,” I reply, although I have no intention of ever talking about it, if I can help it.
He just nods and offers me a soft little grin. “Since we're up, we should probably get moving, but do you want some breakfast first?”
“No thanks. My stomach couldn’t handle it.”
* * * *
All of our stuff is already packed and ready to go. Yesterday, after the incident with our horses and the sandworms, we led Ashen back to the western end of the tunnel and let him go, discarding the saddle on the side of the road. We kept the reins and some of the other belts and straps just in case we might need them. As I watched him walk away down the road, I felt pangs of guilt that his companion, Raven wasn't as lucky. I know that it could have been much worse, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way.
“Are you ready?” he asks, his voice bringing me back to the here and now.
“I’m ready if you are,” I reply with more confidence than I really have.
The last thing I want is to step onto that sand again. I don’t know what triggered the attack and not knowing only serves to make things even scarier. I tell myself that Sera made it across, so we should be able to as well, but somehow that knowledge does nothing to calm my nerves.
Grit has been lying by the end of the tunnel all night and into the morning. He doesn’t seem agitated or anxious like he was yesterday, so at least that’s a little bit of strength for me to draw upon. Luk also seems eager to get moving and I know he’s not reckless, so that helps as well. I stare out at the sand for a few minutes before turning my attention back to him.
“Let’s go.” I get to my feet and we both heft our packs up onto our backs. I tighten the straps and then help Luk get his bag higher up on his shoulders.
He reaches over and takes my hand and I suddenly feel stronger, as if he's passing some of his power to me, but as soon as my boots touch the sand I feel a twinge of panic set in. A quick squeeze of my fingers and the sense of foreboding fades away and we once again begin our trek into the Deadlands.
The sand constantly shifts beneath our feet and the going is both arduous and slow. The sun seems hotter than it was just a few days ago, but maybe it’s just my imagination.
We walk side-by-side, our hands touching periodically. I keep a constant eye on Grit for any sign that he senses the worms or any other predators in the immediate vicinity. The dunes move up and down in soft rolling hills, exposing the underlying landscape in some places while completely obscuring it in others.
“We should probably collect some firewood when we have a chance,” I suggest as we approach an old, dead tree with its top branches sticking out of the sand like a bleached skeletal hand.
We stop and break off a collection of sticks, tying them to the top of my pack with the leather straps that we salvaged from Ashen’s saddle. By mid-day we're both forced to don our old face wraps to ward off both the blowing sand and the burning sun. I can’t decide which is worse; the constant grit in my face or the stifling heat that I have to endure to keep it out. We march slowly, without talking for mile after mile, first climbing the western face of a dune and then clumsily making our way down the eastern slope only to be greeted with another featureless beige mound.
Thankfully, by late afternoon the wind has diminished and we both pull off our masks. I glance over at Luk and smile. He grins back at me, his face red and sweaty.
“This isn’t much fun.”
“Nope, not a whole lot,” comes the terse reply.
About an hour later we finally spot an area, half a mile ahead, where the road emerges from beneath the carpet of sand. The blacktop, speed limit signs and even a few cars break the monotony of the terrain. Gradually the sand begins to retreat as we draw closer to the exposed tarmac. When we reach the roadway, we both stop immediately and strip off our packs, setting them on the stark black asphalt. I stretch my back and twist my waist right and left before I turn and look at Luk. Grit sits down at my feet and looks off east into the distance.
“Hot enough for you?” Luk asks cheerfully.
“I think so.” I pull one of our water bottles out of my pack and take a quick mouthful. I swish it around for a few seconds before swallowing.
I hand the bottle to him, but he shakes his head.
“Let Grit have some first.”
I smile at him and then kneel down in front of our loyal companion, cupping my hand and filling it with water. He laps it up greedily. I fill my hand a second time and he empties it as well before sitting down and looking at me. I pet his head gently before I stand back up and hand the bottle over to Luk. He takes one mouthful as well before capping the bottle and slipping it back into my pack. We all stand there, side-by-side looking down the road as it climbs slowly into the mountains, turning gradually to the northeast. It looks like the sand has retreated for the most part in this section. I can trace the black line of the highway until it vanishes over the horizon.
Luk sighs and puts his arm over my shoulder. “Well, I suppose we should get moving again.”
“Yep. At least it looks like we'll get a break from the sand for a little while.”
The sun beats down on us mercilessly for the better part of the afternoon before it finally falls behind the mountaintops to the west. The air is still hot, but at least the broiling rays of the sun are gone. The road's been climbing gradually the entire afternoon and I can feel the change in the air as it thins out even more. My muscles are aching and my lungs are burning as we try and keep up a decent pace. I miss the horses more than I thought I would.
The surrounding terrain has changed considerably since we left the tunnel earlier in the morning. Trees and grasses grow in patches alongside various cacti, and we even spot the occasional animal before it darts away from the sound of our approach. Grit walks lazily alongside me, never complaining and always alert for any threat to our safety. The highway itself has seen better days. Potholes appear out of nowhere and large cracks in the asphalt threaten to trip us up at every opportunity. I suspect that within five more years it'll be impossible to even tell where the roadway used to be.
I spy an area, perhaps a hundred yards off the side of the road where a few small trees are clustered together.
“What about there for tonight?” I ask, pointing to the tiny grove.
“Looks good, babe.”
I feel the butterflies in my stomach spring to life when he says “babe”. I can't believe that such a simple thing still thrills me to the core. A little while later we're sitting under a large, old oak tree surrounded by a collection of conifers watching the last of the sunlight slowly vanish from the darkening sky. Grit is curled up next to me, snoring softly. Luk has his arms around my waist, his thumb gently moving back and forth across my stomach under my shirt. I'm leaning back against him, nestled between his outstretched legs, my hands resting on his knees. I can feel his breath on the back of my neck and each gentle puff of air makes goose bumps form on my skin.
“How far to Idaho Springs?” he asks, breaking the silence.
I bring an image of the map to my mind to try and figure out where we are, but unfortunately the terrain in this area contains no obvious landmarks, which makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint our location.
“I’m not sure, but I'm guessing about ten miles or so, but I could be way off.”
He just nods and I feel him shift slightly against the trunk of the tree.
“Are you okay, should I move?”
“Don’t you dare,” he says before kissing the top of my head. “How’s your side, by the way?”
“It’s fine,” I reply, without lying too much.
“Uh huh. I saw your face earlier. I think we may be pushing it too hard.”
I turn my head and look up at him.
“I told you, I’m fine.”
“Well, I'm going to shift some of the stuff out of your pack into mine.”
“The hell you are,” I say, squeezing his leg. “Things are fine just the way they are.”
He shakes his head and rolls his eyes at me.
“Why the hell do you have to be so stubborn?” he asks with a grin.
I turn around completely until I'm facing him, leaning on my arms, face to face with him.
“I have to keep up with you.”
Leaning forward, I kiss him, pressing my lips hard against his before he can reply.