Jim peeked over the dune, careful to keep his body concealed behind the hot sand. The sun was starting to set, casting a brilliant cocktail of orange, red, and rust hues upon the land. The shadow from his anchored landship crawled eastward. As he squinted, his suspicions were verified: head, behind an outcropping of rocks, the tattered sail of an overturned sloop fluttered in the breeze.
His eyes darted around cautiously. Staring at the unmanned vessel, Jim knew it was probably a trap. The growling in his stomach protested his better sense. Four days prior, a starving suahim lizard had attacked him in his small vessel, nearly destroying his ship and what remained of his supplies.
The enormous creatures, sometimes up to three meters in length, typically avoided humans, instead preferring to feast on giant scarabs and other desert insects. However, when hungry enough, they could be a dangerous foe. He’d managed to kill the beast, but not before it shredded his mainsail and snapped the mast in half. Since then, the wind had pushed his ship along on its lone jib sail at a limping pace as he pointed the bow in the direction of Freeport.
Drifting northward, he had delicately sailed the rusty vehicle across the black sands of the Great Dune Sea. The pace barely passed for a brisk walk as his ship bobbed up and down hardly a meter above the ground.
With each new dune, his ship would dip, temporarily picking up speed, and then crawl up another. Sailing the great sands required tremendous focus and constant adjustment. A good sailor could find a semi-straight path upon the winding peaks of the dunes, rarely having to descend or ascend the treacherous faces. Of course, good sailors usually had good ships, a blessing he did not share.
He had already been low on water stores before the attack. Afterwards, he had rationed his small container out as far as he could, and the last of it ran dry a day earlier.
Smacking his cracked lips together, he crept along the perimeter of the rocks, looking for hidden threats. Jim’s light brown eyes were the only part of his body not covered by the heavy desert jubba, a full body suit meant to protect its wearer against exposure. Scattered across the ashen surface, darkened spots of dried blood flaked off the garment.
Pushing the lingering pain aside, he fixed his eyes on the downed ship. He pulled the jubba back from his head and turned an ear toward the vessel. A steady flapping of canvas carried over the light winds, beckoning him onward. Finally, Jim scurried his last few meters from the rocks crash site.
The landship was similar in size to his own but in much better condition. Under salvage rights, he could recover it and make it his own. He shook the thought away and reminded himself, food and drink before salvage.
As he shuffled quickly from the bow to stern, Jim made a hasty inspection of the small cabin through a broken window. He could see the inside was empty, save a small bedroll of handspun desert cotton.
The creaking boat shifted in the sand as he made his way to the cabin door. Its port side pushstone lifted the ship at an odd angle, standing it slightly on its side railing before a new gust of wind brought it to the ground with a thump and a spray of sand. In all ships, pushstones were installed at forty five degree angles within the hull to “push” the sand outward with their invisible force and prevent the ships from capsizing. Few things were powerful enough to knock a ship over in such a manner. Something here had done it though, and were it not for his deep hunger, Jim might have wondered what could have caused such an accident.
The fiery sun drifted lazily toward the western horizon, spreading upon the foothills. It’ll be dark soon. Gotta hurry, he reminded himself.
Carefully, he cracked the aged Manzawood door to the cabin. Gravity did the rest as the door flew open and broke free of its hinges. It bounced across the tilted deck and onto the sand. Jim cringed. No explosions came though. He examined the frame. No wires; no booby traps. Lucky, he thought. Let’s see just how lucky. He forged on, careful to keep his footing on his hunger weakened legs.
Crawling through the slanted room, Jim made his way to the bedroll. It was unimpressive and contained no hidden food caches within. The room around him was a galley and crew quarters combined in one, common in small ships.
Jim rummaged through the cabinets but found nothing. No empty tins. No dehydrated fruits. Worst of all, no water. His belly protested in disappointment. Hope was giving way to despair.
A familiar tingle began to crawl up his spine. A sense of danger as old as instinct. A growing feeling of doom was gathering in his gut. Finally, his hunger was silenced by reason. Where is the captain of this vessel? He wondered. It looked to be in fairly good shape. Little dust, nothing broken. Recently abandoned, he realized. Why would someone leave it here in the middle of nowhere, and where did they hope to go? The nearest city is days away by sail. Weeks on foot.
His better sense returned to him as he realized, This is a trap. In his desperation, he had walked right into it.
His lower back muscles tightened and his hands shook as adrenaline shot through his system. His practiced calm was no match for millions of years of evolution. The animal part of his brain was shouting “danger!”, and his body was responding.
Get out. NOW, his instincts warned. Then he heard it. Crunch crunch. Someone was approaching the ship. Heavy footfalls in the cracked sand grew near. Crunch crunch.
The sound was right outside now. Suddenly, he spotted two bronzed legs as the person stopped just on the other side of the crooked cabin glass.
With dehydration setting in, Jim knew he had to act while he had at least some strength. He grabbed the bedroll and wrapped it around both arms. Shielding his head, he sprinted for the front window of the cabin. The thin glass shattered around him as he burst outside onto the still burning sand and barreled into the unseen target.
His would-be captor stumbled backwards in surprise. Tossing off the bedroll and rolling to his left, Jim pulled a jagged hunting knife and single shot pistol from their belt holsters. He was on his feet within a moment.
A few paces away, a very surprised, very large man stumbled to a stop. The man’s body was adorned with bleached bone armor. Jim recognized human skulls on his shoulders and rib bones bound together into a crude breastplate that covered his midsection. His instincts screamed out in alarm, cannibal.
The man towered over Jim. The cannibal’s body was built like a steamroom boiler, but there was a hungry, hawkish look to him. Desperate angry eyes stared back at Jim.
There was little time to think.
The cannibal was nimble, especially given his size. Despite being taken by surprise, he had quickly recovered. With a frightening roar, he started toward Jim.
Leveling his pistol, Jim fired his single shot. CRACK! The gun kicked back, belching a cloud of black smoke. The musket ball burst through the behemoth’s chest with a sickening wet squish.
With crooked femur knife in hand and in full sprint, the man threw his momentum into a final leap. Rolling to the right, Jim avoided the majority of the cannibal’s mass, instead sending his left foot sailing into the giant’s chest, further traumatizing the mortal wound. Giant or not, a point blank shot through the heart could fell any man.
The cannibal gurgled once and fell face first to the ground. A small cloud of dust shot out from under his crumpled body. Jim wasn’t sure if he’d imagined it, but he could swear the ground shook a little with the impact.
Shouts and sounds of shuffling footsteps arose from behind the fallen sloop, robbing Jim of any hope of rest. The lack of water was sapping away his strength, threatening to push him to total exhaustion.
One, two, three, five hungry men leapt over the overturned ship with predatory speed. These cannibals were smaller than the first. In fact, they were easily a few hands shorter than Jim’s 182-centimeter build. They looked a fair deal younger too. At thirty years old, his body had already begun to protest over a decade in the dangerous conditions of the wastes.
Wearing little more than loin cloths, and painted head to toe in unreadable black and red patterns, they were gaunt with the same look of desperation he’d seen in the first. Maddening hunger was heavy on the face of each of them.
Wielding spears tipped with black crystal; they were in a fury. Their champion was dead, their trap had failed, and their dinner was escaping. With only a few dozen paces head start, Jim sprinted for the edge of the sandstone outcropping back toward his anchored ship. The group gave chase, although a few stopped to feast on the fallen cannibal.
The first spear whistled by to his left, missing him by only a few inches. His legs pumped in a blur as the next missile found flesh, cutting into his right calf and opening a gash. Mercifully, the pain was dulled by the adrenaline pumping through him as he focused on escape.
Jim ran up the gangway and dove into the hold of his ship, rolling into a run. He crossed the small space quickly, nearly tripping over a few loose planks. Grabbing two pistols, he scurried to the starboard forward porthole. Shoving the first through the hole, he risked a single breath before squeezing the trigger.
CRACK! The lead cannibal doubled over a fresh stomach wound. His blood curdling scream hastened his friends’ run as they leapt past. They did not show the same interest in eating their fallen comrade, instead shouting incoherent curses toward his steadily bobbing ship.
Tossing the smoking weapon behind him, Jim grabbed the second. Taking aim at the nearest cannibal who was now scrambling up the gangway, Jim fired again. **Click ** Nothing. Damnit. Alliance gets the breech loaders, and the civilians get stuck with muskets, he thought with frustration.
Taking one last peek, he spotted four more of them making their way across the sand, only seconds behind the others. They too had no interest in eating their fallen friend, instead opting for the fresh meat of an outsider.
Shuffling to the far end of the hold, hunched under the low ceiling, he pulled a worn canvas off a nearby crate. The torn fabric pulled back to reveal a wooden box nearly as tall and twice as wide as Jim. On the front of the crate, in bold, white, hand painted letters were the words, “Go to Hell!!”
With a thud, the first cannibal dropped through the entrance. Despite his hunger, this one moved slowly, eyes never leaving his prey. He’d witnessed the felling of his leader and friend.
The starving cannibal crept across Jim’s small cargo hold, eyes stealing a glance left and right, scanning for dangers unseen. His breathing was heavy and his gaze fixed with hatred. His dilapidated frame was covered in white paint except for a small loin cloth and bone-shoulder armor. He looked to Jim like a living skeleton. The creature raised its spear to strike.
Withdrawing a small match and board from his belt pouch, Jim struck it. The small flame lit the hold in the dying light. The last thing the cannibal saw from behind Jim’s dirt blackened face was a feral grin as he lit the fuse.
Jim rolled out a side escape hatch, meant for smuggling, but effective now in his flight. He turned back to see the cannibal’s eyes go wide with shock. The man had just enough time to register what had happened and shout a word of alarm up to his friends in their strange guttural language.
With only a few seconds on the fuse, Jim spent the last bit of strength he had remaining, his body still fighting him with each step. As he dove for a small indentation in the ground, the blast struck.
One hundred and twenty pounds of packed black powder made for a spectacular explosion. Suddenly, the world was white, and a terrific sound shook his bones. For a moment, the noise and light was beyond his ability to fully comprehend. Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
The blast caught Jim in mid-jump and thrust his body downward into the desert sand, cracking a few ribs in the process. Trying to control his ragdolled form, he tucked himself into a ball with hands behind his neck.
For a moment, he was at the mercy of momentum as his body flailed and rolled in the sand. Jim let out a loud OOF as his back slammed against a dune. The sand hissed as it cascaded around him. His ears ringing and vision blurred, Jim opened his eyes.
The gunpowder had done its deadly work. Where a ship once floated, a smoking crater remained, littered with splinters of wood and mangled sheet metal. Heavy clouds of black smoke drifted lazily into the sky as the remains of his life’s few possessions burned.
Somehow, luck had continued to accompany him. He was alive, aside from a few scrapes, a few broken ribs, and a slowly seeping spear wound. When his hearing began to return, the sounds of crackling wood, howling twilight winds, and shouts reached him.
From behind the growing wall of smoke, two specters lumbered in his direction.
Against the burning firelight, the cannibals were horrific creatures of nightmares. Covered head to toe in soot and hunched over, with spears held at the ready, they approached like wolves, moving in for the killing blow. Hunger and fury were in their eyes. They froze for a moment. One of them muttered something and pointed at Jim and then broke into a furious run. The second cannibal followed.
The wind wailed across sand and rock, buffeting his back. His energy was spent. He had no more tricks. No more strength but all the will in the world to survive. He shook violently, half from terror, and the rest from utter exhaustion. This is it then, he thought as he stood up. His fear was spent. Hope was lost. All that remained was anger.
“Time to work for your supper, assholes!” he growled through bared teeth.
Jim limped out of his unintended landing spot. Wheezing, head still ringing, he calmed his heart and steadied his breathing.
Ahead of him, the end to a life spent in the wastes, of barely scraping by on the bottom rung of society. Filled with regret and anger over such an ending, he would give them something to remember him by.
The man-creatures charged at him. He mustered strength that he wasn’t aware existed and shouted his last dying breath with the entirety of his malice. It felt as if his very soul was being thrust upon them. The rage filled him. Then, it consumed him.
The howling wind rose to a crescendo as a deafening roar filled the sky.
Charging in utter desperation, he was upon them in an instant. What happened next, Jim would always recall as something between a dream and an out-of-body experience.
He saw the terror fill their eyes. Suddenly, he was watching from above a familiar body — his body — as the wretched remnants of a man swung his arms and hit air. No, he wasn’t swinging. He was wielding the earth itself. With each swing, giant pillars of sand erupted from the dune beneath him and tore the cannibal’s flesh from their bodies. With each desperate shout, a mighty torrent of earth would rise and crash into them.
The men attempted to flee, but it was too late for them. The shifting sand soon ran red with their blood. The screams were soon drowned by the terrible rumble of their earthen tombs. Their skeletons were tossed across the bloodied landscape and landed in a heap of gore before sinking under the sand.
Still floating above his body, Jim realized what was happening. He’d heard the stories but he’d never guess he was one of them. I’m an awakened!? He thought.
Suddenly, he was in his body again, and the world around him was darkening. The released power had quickly escaped his control, and now he watched, helpless as his awakening took its deadly course.
The rushing wind intensified and swirled into a terrible hurricane of fury. Lost now to the power swimming through him, he could only hope that he would survive.
An intensifying earthquake engulfed the remains of his vessel to the depths and turned the world around him a glowing ember red. Every nerve was on fire. Every inch of his body was in agony. The sky was filled with the maelstrom.
The pain was unimaginable. When the darkness came, he welcomed it.