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Theresa L. Shreffler

"The Tired Lands - Chapter 1" by Theresa L. Shreffler

SciFi/Fantasy text 2 out of 2 by Theresa L. Shreffler.      ←Previous - Next→
 
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Leah is a boarder guard, sworn to protect the town of Outpost from the dangerous, magical creatures of the Tired Lands. But times are changing, and when the Midnight Train arrives with a cargo that could change the world, she finds herself irresistibly drawn towards the distant city of Sulligard, and the handsome sentinels that watch over the train. Joining the team of sentinels, she departs on an adventure to guide the train through the perils of the Tired Lands - but who knew her destiny could hold so much more?
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←- The Tired Lands - Chapter 2 | The Tired Lands - Chapter 2 -→

Chapter 1

The Border Guards


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.

But tonight, one beastie had found its way through the barrier.

The 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 game.

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 sand.

"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.

The 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.

"What are 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! Move!"

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 and blood.

She braced herself - and fired.

Bam!

The 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.

It 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 outer fences.

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 world.

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 lie still.

"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."

Leah 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 desert.

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.

She 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.


* * *

"You know the train is arriving tonight."

Leah sighed, 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.

"I know," she grumbled.

"We'll need all of our best guards out there to help them resupply."

"I know, Doc."

"Then why do I feel like you're not going to show up?"

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 more excusable.

"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 it!"

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."

Doc 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 put in."

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 door.


* * *

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.

All 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.

Leah was 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 hand.

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 Outpost.

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.

←- The Tired Lands - Chapter 2 | The Tired Lands - Chapter 2 -→

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'The Tired Lands - Chapter 1':
 • Created by: :-) Theresa L. Shreffler
 • Copyright: ©Theresa L. Shreffler. All rights reserved!

 • Keywords: Action, Adventure, Complete, Desert, Fantasy, Fiction, Good, Heroine, Lands, Leah, Literature, Novel, Punk, Romance, Science, Sentinels, Steam, Steampunk, Tired, Train, Writing
 • Categories: Fights, Duels, Battles, Magic and Sorcery, Spells, etc., Mythical Creatures & Assorted Monsters, Romance, Emotion, Love, Techno, Cyber, Technological, Urban Fantasy and/or Cyberpunk, Warrior, Fighter, Mercenary, Knights, Paladins, Wizards, Priests, Druids, Sorcerers..., American Traditions, Mythology, Mystery, Detective, Crimes
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