The Tired Lands had been named because no man
dare sleep while traveling through them - and for good reason. As
Leah stood with her rifle cocked at ready, she couldn't imagine a
worse place to be.
The sands swirled around her feet, creating
small dust-devils across the rolling dunes. The moon was high above
her, casting more than enough light to see by; the chill of the
desert was intense at this late hour. The entire desert was consumed
in a silver glow, offset only by the pinkish light that shone from
the outer fences. The fences were broad and long, made of beams of
energy that intertwined in a complex net - they separated the town of
Outpost from the creatures that lurked beyond its border.
tonight, one beastie had found its way through the barrier.
moonlight glinted off of the dusty scales of the creature before her,
and Leah shifted her stance slightly, her hands steady on the gun. It
was rare that a beast as large as a dune-dragon ever found its way
past the outer fences that protected the town, but this area of the
fence had always been a bit faulty. They had to repair it soon before
more animals came through.
"Hold steady!" she called
to the group of men behind her. There were about five in all, two of
them mainly there to repair the fence. As far as the other three were
concerned, she could almost hear them shaking in their boots. They
were rookies, amateur border guards that had been given to her at the
start of summer, fresh out of training. This would be their first big
The dune-dragon was low to the ground now, circling its
hunched, reptilian body through the sand like a shark moving through
water. The curve of its back reached at least fifteen feet into the
air, vastly overshadowing its tiny head. Its scuttling legs kicked up
clouds of dust, threatening to block Leah's view, but she hadn't been
a border guard for the last nine years for nothing. She deftly
stepped to the side, moving so that the wind took the dust away from
her. A tremor of fear ran through her as the dune-dragon sifted
closer - this had to be the largest specimen she had ever seen, well
over thirty feet long. She took a deep breath and forced herself to
stay calm. The town's safety was in her hands; she couldn't let any
creature through the barricade.
A shimmer ran across the
dune-dragon's scales as the spines along its back stretched into the
air. Leah took a step back in alarm. "Watch it!" she called
- it was a sure sign that the beast would attack soon. An anxious
drop of sweat dripped down her nose, only to be blown away by a chill
wind. Leah bit her lip in concentration. . . any moment now. . . any
moment and the beast would head straight for them-
There was a
sudden, coughing roar as the creature abruptly surged forward, its
speed rivaling that of the fastest horse. Within seconds the massive
body came shooting through the sand like a missile, straight towards
the party of border guards. Cascades of dirt and grit flew in its
wake. All Leah could see was the hump of its back plates and the
small, beady red eyes that glared at her amidst flying
"Ready!" Leah called, just as the beast let
out a second bellow of anger; the sound shook through the hollows of
her chest. She dug in her feet and held her ground, trying not to
think of the size of its jaws.
"Aim!" she braced her
legs. She sighted along the barrel of her rifle, aiming for the left
eye, its only weak spot; it was the only part of its head visible
through the sand. The dune-dragon's armor would be almost invincible
at this range.
"Open fire!" she cried, and the three
men behind her began blasting away. Leah pulled the trigger, letting
loose a lead bullet that flew directly towards her target.
Immediately she reloaded and cocked the gun, her movements smooth and
sure - by now the rifle felt just like another part of her body.
beast let out a roar of pain as the bullet shot clear through its
left eye, bright red blood spewing out of the now-gaping hole in its
head. It swerved and tumbled, rolling through the sand like some
giant, writhing lizard, its broad tail sweeping through the air. Leah
fell to the ground and ducked low just as the tail went soaring past
her head, the beast's cries of agony ripping through the night like
nails on a chalk board. Leah gritted her teeth and aimed again, this
time trying to get a clear shot at the right eye. If she could just
take out both eyes before the beast escaped, she'd put an end to the
threat for good.
"Jesse, get down!" a voice screamed
from behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she could see one of
the rookies standing in the middle of the sand, apparently dumbstruck
at the sight of the writhing dune-dragon. He appeared to be frozen to
the spot. Leah turned her head and grimaced.
you waiting for? Duck-!" she tried to yell, but the words caught
up in her throat. At that moment the tail of the dune-dragon went
sailing over all of their heads, and she numbly watched as it smashed
directly into the man's chest. The rookie toppled immediately, not
even given the chance to scream - Leah turned away quickly when his
head popped up into the air, separating from the body like a cork
from a champagne bottle. She gripped her gun, swallowing the bile
that rose in her stomach. It was to be expected, but the sight of
death never ceased to shock her.
"Roll, roll, roll!"
she yelled as the dragon took a turn in their direction, its roars
turning from pain to rage. It had scented blood. The tail swept over
them again, but it was too high to get anyone this time. She dove
through the sand as the dune-dragon turned and began to charge
straight at them, moaning and snapping its jaws. There was a mad
scramble to get out of its way.
She landed on her back atop
one of the dunes, blinking the sand from her eyes, and turned to face
the beast. It was charging straight at them, its mouth open and the
moonlight reflecting from its long, wet teeth. Shreds of old flesh
could be seen hanging from its jagged canines. Leah raised the gun
and took careful aim - she may not get a second opportunity like this
one. The beast was now steady in its movement and direction; she had
a clear shot at the right eye.
"Leah, fall back!"
one of the remaining guards yelled. "Get out of the way!
Leah let out a slow breath, calming her racing
heart. The beast was so close that she could see the saliva dripping
from its broad jaws. She sighted, pinpointing her target and
steadying her hand. The dragon was almost on top of her. She could
smell the fowl decay of its breath. It approached in a storm of sand
She braced herself - and fired.
gun jumped smoothly in her hands as the bullet flew, and she quickly
ducked to one side, flinging herself from the path of the giant and
rolling into a protective ball. The beast let out an ear-splitting
scream as the bullet pierced its remaining eye, and the dune-dragon
was sent tumbling past her, raking her along the back with a
razor-sharp claw before smashing down the opposite side of the dune.
It had now fully emerged from the sand, its massive body tumbling
down he hill. Ignoring her injury, Leah jumped to her feet the moment
it passed, grabbing her gun and leaping to the top of the hill so she
could look down at the writhing body of the dragon. After a few
moments she was cautiously joined by the remaining men.
really was a strange looking creature, she thought as she watched the
beast's death throws. Two thirds of the body were made of a long
tail, while the rest was almost all mouth and teeth and hunched back.
The blood gushing from the dragon's head was turning the sand to mud,
creating a sticky sinkhole, but it was no danger - no one but the
border patrol ventured this far away from town, all the way to the
Speaking of which. . . "You three,"
she said, pointing to the two repair men and one of the guards, "Get
over there and start working on that fence before anything else makes
it through. We can't risk one of these things getting into our
livestock, or worse, the town itself."
The guard nodded
shakily and turned to the two repair men, who were a bit more
hesitant at being prodded towards the fence. It seemed that they were
in shock over the whole ordeal - Leah didn't blaim them. Most town
folk didn't venture far enough from their homes to truly taste the
dangers of the desert. Luckily the mysterious technology of the
fences allowed them to live in relative safety, though making a
living was still harsh and risky in the Tired Lands. It would always
be - things existed here that had no place in the outside
Leah turned back to the creature once the other three
had left. Already the beast's struggles were slowing down, and within
minutes it had stopped flailing, lying in a defeated heap in a muddy
pool of its own blood. Every now and then the body would spasm, then
"We'll have to burn the corpse before it
attracts any larger predators," the remaining man said, running
a hand through his hair. "It's a sad thing about Jesse."
nodded numbly, thinking of the dead border guard. Thankfully he had
no family of his own - it would be twice as painful if he had left a
widow behind, especially since Leah would be the one bearing the bad
news. "He'll get a proper burial," she said quietly. Not
many lasted long in this occupation - the fact that she had been
around for five years was practically legendary. That is, if anything
could be counted as legendary when living in an isolated town of only
a hundred or so people. Outpost was the last safe stop before
entering the true wastes of the Tired Lands. Dune-dragons were just
the beginning of the horrors that waited out in the depths of the
Leah shook herself out of her reverie and started down
the dune toward the dragon's body.
Her companion took a few
surprised steps forward and then halted. "Captain Leah, I'm not
sure if we should - uh, what are you doing?"
She drew a
knife from her belt and glanced over her shoulder with a grim smile,
spinning the blade between her fingers. "Collecting a few
teeth," she said, "the tourists love them. And you'd be
wise to get down here and help me skin the thing, their scales are
worth a bundle in Ephemar. It would help you put food on the table
for those little boys of yours."
After a moment the man
nodded, still warily eyeing the beast. Leah wasn't worried about the
dune-dragon anymore - the bullets had gone clear through the eyes and
into the brain. The only reason it was still twitching was the dying
nerve endings. The thing had lost all reason and consciousness long
ago - by all rights it was already dead.
The sky was tinted
with gray by the time Leah had finished skinning the beast and the
corpse was finally set on fire. She sighed, wiping her bloody knife
in the sand; her clothes were covered in fresh blood and gore, by all
means unsalvagable. Her back was sore and stinging from the graze she
had received earlier - looked like she would need another trip to old
Doc's infirmary. At least this time the cuts weren't poisonous; most
creatures in the Tired Lands were laden with all sorts of nasty
surprises, but dune-dragons were more straightforward.
sighed, walking forward quickly to catch up to the repair men, who
were already heading home. Another busy night for the border patrol.
There had been more beasts trying to invade the town as of late. She
wondered if it had anything to do with the Midnight Train or the
rumors she had been hearing from up North. She would have thought
about it longer, but now all she wanted was a long soak in a tub and
to catch up on a few hours of sleep.
Jesse's body in tow, the
five headed home across the dunes, the bulky houses of the village
barely shadows in the distance.
* * *
know the train is arriving tonight."
swishing an idle finger around the rim of her shot glass. Her trusty
gun was leaning against the bar counter, and her boots were covered
in fresh dust. It was only a short walk from her home to the saloon,
but sand was everywhere in the Tired Lands. Shopkeepers spent most of
the day just trying to sweep it out of their stores.
know," she grumbled.
"We'll need all of our best
guards out there to help them resupply."
"Then why do I feel like you're not going to
Leah glanced up at the withered face of Doc
Morgan, the town pub owner part doctor part unofficial mayor's aid.
She wanted to groan - the man had no say in her life, but he always
seemed around to remind her of her responsibilities. This habit of
his had started a few years ago after her father had died in a
runaway horse-cart accident. Her mother had passed on when she had
been young. It seemed that Doc had somehow taken it upon himself to
be her surrogate family, or at least a consistently nosy friend - the
fact that he had been close to her father before didn't make it any
"Look, Doc, I have enough on my plate
without worrying about those pansies from Ephemar; my back aches like
wildfire and who's going to patrol the borders if I'm hung up
answering questions for some stooge? You know this is the one day of
the month that we lose the most livestock to sandwolves. Plus we lost
poor Jesse this morning. . . he was young, but he showed promise."
She sighed. "Let the rest of the patrol be here to assist the
train, I'll be out at the far fields, watching that faulty fence
where the dune-dragon dug under-"
A hand slammed down on
the table, startling Leah out of her mutterings. She looked up at Doc
and cocked an eyebrow - typical behavior from the old man. "I
don't want to hear another word of it, young miss!" he growled,
his tiny gray eyes on fire. "The whole purpose of our town is to
provide shelter and assistance to the Midnight Train - it is our
duty." He shook his head slightly. "There would be no town
here if it wasn't for that train, you know it's the only reason for
peace and communication between the two cities! So you bet your best
breeches that you're going to be out there when that train arrives
tonight, and you're going to answer questions, point stooges to the
bathroom, and help load rations. There ain't no but or maybe about
Leah had heard the speech before, and she tried to
look hassled, but she couldn't help but smile at the old man's
antics. He worshiped that train with a fervor; apparently it had been
the only source of news and civilization back in his day. Long ago,
the cities of Ephemar and Sulligard had been like miniature kingdoms,
always fighting each other or battling over trade despite the
dangerous desert between them. Now, however, diplomacy had bloomed
thanks to the reliable communication provided by the Midnight Train.
It was true that Outpost had originally been founded purely as a rest
stop for the Midnight Train and a safe place to reload rations and
fuel, but technology was changing and Outpost was growing. They were
completely self-sufficient now, and the new border fences kept out
most of the predators with their energy waves. They had actually
expanded the town by two full streets last year - that made for at
least thirty new people to their community. Things were looking up,
and the Midnight Train was now turning into an excuse for the kingdom
to leech off of their bounty.
Perhaps the Tired Lands were
too dangerous to cross any other way, and perhaps it was the only
mode of transportation for goods, cargo, and passengers between the
grand cities, but that didn't mean she had to like it. In fact, Leah
quite disliked it.
"Don't worry yourself, Doc," she
grumbled, motioning for another shot. "I'll be there, but this
is no charity. I expect our town to get paid this time for all the
trouble - and I'm sending out a troupe of my best boys to watch that
outer fence. We're not losing one goat or cow tonight."
nodded, taking out a clear bottle and filling up her glass. He winked
at her. "On the house, missy," he said. "And be
careful with that back, don't go tearing out any of those stitches I
Leah tossed the shot back and put the cup down,
savoring the sweet burn of the alcohol for a long moment. Then she
lifted her hood over her head. "If anyone needs me, I'll be out
in sector five near the cattle barns," she said, standing up and
grabbing her gun. She slung the rifle easily over her shoulder. "Take
it easy, old man."
Doc's laughter followed her out the
* * *
After an uneventful day of patrolling
the cattle barns, Leah returned to her room above the tailor's shop.
She had shot a few wingers, giant half-reptilian buzzards that
sometimes swooped down and carried away a calf, but other than that
there was no sign of large predators. Sadly, all the large ones
usually came at night - and they had an uncanny way of knowing when
the Midnight Train would arrive and most of the border guards would
be busy. But she tried not to focus on this; it happened once a
month, she should have gotten used to the sacrifice by now.
border guards were given free boarding, food, and clothes, mainly
because their work was extremely dangerous and they didn't get paid
for it in any other way. Therefore she felt no guilt as she threw out
her bloodied clothes from that morning, stripped down, and stepped
into a hot shower. Plumbing was a new commodity to Outpost - a few
Sulligard wizards had stopped in last year and installed the pipes
beneath the town, connecting them with a deep underwater spring.
People were only just now getting used to the idea that they could
enjoy a bath without rationing water for a week.
secretly glad for the day's lack of action. Although she didn't like
to show it, she was still pretty rattled about Jesse's death. She
couldn't get the image of his decapitated body out of her head. As
she turned to wash her hair with a rough bar of soap, she imagined
that somehow she was washing the guilt off of herself. It was not her
fault that the rookie had gotten killed; he had stood up when no sane
man ought to, but she couldn't help but feel responsible. She should
have assigned him to an easier task - should have put him on more
training exercises. In her time as Captain, hardly any of the border
guards had been killed. She could count them all on one
Careful not to get her bandages wet, Leah washed her
reddish brown hair and soaped over the rest of her tan, lean body,
then stepped out and dried down with a rough towel. She could already
hear the beginnings of the festivities taking place outside - the
twanging of instruments being tuned and the shouts of people as they
set up food and drink. It was always a cause for celebration when the
Midnight Train arrived. Rich travelers from both cities often bought
souvenirs or gave to charities, and many enjoyed the "small
town" feel of Outpost. Leah had heard that it was called the
number one tourist spot in city pamphlets, though she couldn't
imagine why. The city dwellers were far too ignorant to how harsh
life really was out in the desert. They loved to gawk and stare, but
only a rough and rare breed actually moved permanently to towns like
She hurriedly dressed in her best uniform - a hood
that was practical for keeping out sand and shielding the neck from
the sun, that had somehow become a standard symbol of the desert
dwellers. A loose shirt strapped across the chest with a belt, and
billowing pants tucked into tall brown boots. Traditionally her gun
should be worn across her back, but considering the delicate state of
her wound, she settled for securing its strap around her shoulder. By
the time Leah was finished, she looked just like the stereotypical
desert dweller - lean, cloaked, and dangerous. The only difference
between her clothes and anyone else's were the uniform tan colors and
the bright red emblem of an eagle across her chest. It marked her as
Captain of the Guard.
She turned from the mirror and headed
downstairs to the festival. "Now for another agonizing night,"
she muttered under her breath.