The sun beat down without mercy on the desert kingdom of Dusk. Wind blew incessantly from the east, stirring the reddish sand high into the sky, even as high as the gryphons were flying. Carlan drew the hood of his gray cloak down further to shield his face. Sweat made the coarse wool itch against his skin. Rinitha sat behind him in the saddle with her arms wrapped around his waist and her head against his shoulder. The pressure of her body against his back only added to his discomfort but he would never say as much.
Ahead of them, Verdin's gray cloak flapped in the wind. He turned in the saddle and glanced back. "There's a storm coming." He had to shout to be heard over the sound of the wind.
"A storm?" Carlan looked around for dark storm clouds, but all he could see was red sand and red sky. "I didn't think it ever rained hard enough here to consider it a storm."
"Not a rainstorm," Verdin called back. "A sandstorm. The gryphons can't fly through it. We have to land."
Carlan raised his hand in acknowledgment. They flew a ways further until they found a high dune in whose shadow they could land. The wind was not so harsh there with the dune blocking it.
As soon as Carlan and Rinitha dismounted, Sundance stretched out his silver wings and gave himself a shake. Tiny pellets of sand flew every which way.
"Sundance," Carlan said reproachfully, raising a hand to shield his face.
Starshine growled and nipped at Sundance's hind legs. The young gryphon shrank away with a protesting squawk, giving the older gryphon a wounded look.
"It's your own fault," Verdin said. He'd pushed back the hood of his cloak and sunlight highlighted his dark red hair. "He doesn't like the sand in his feathers any better than you do, but at least he has better manners about it."
Sundance snorted, drew his legs up under himself, and lay down. Carlan scratched his feathered head just above his sharp beak. "We'll be in Cerulean before you know it and then all this sand will be nothing but a bad memory."
The gryphon gazed back at him with his golden eagle eyes, then tucked his head up under his wing. Carlan couldn't blame him any for being irritated. Dusk wasn't exactly his favorite kingdom either. But at least here they were safe from their enemies.
"The very first thing I want to do in Cerulean is find somewhere to take a bath," Rinitha said, fingering a lock of her long blonde hair which was so tangled and choked with sand that she couldn't even run her fingers through it. "I have never felt so dirty in all of my life."
"I wish I could say the same," Carlan said. "Sadly, I have been in far worse shape than this. But I agree, the first thing we should do is get cleaned up. This sand is driving me mad." He scratched the side of his neck.
Verdin unloaded the tent from Starshine's saddle and started to set it up. "It'll have to be in a lake or a river or something. We don't dare stay at an inn. Too dangerous."
"I don't care what it is," Rinitha said, "so long as it's water."
Just then, Zazere came riding around the side of the dune on his black stallion. "The storm is near."
"The tent's ready." Verdin stepped back and eyed the stallion. "The gryphons can stay out in the storm all right but what about Nightshade? The tent's small, but I suppose we could squeeze him in if we must."
"That won't be necessary," Zazere said, in his calm, flat voice. "Nightshade can see after himself as well the gryphons can."
"I've been meaning to ask where you acquired such a fine animal," Rinitha said. "He's surely as well bred as any stallion in my father's stables."
Carlan was surprised to hear her speak to Zazere. She'd not said a word to him since they fled Castle Vainglory. Not that she'd spoken much to him before that. He didn't exactly encourage friendly conversation. But Rinitha had a special reason to avoid the slyph mage. Zazere had killed her brother right in front of her. For a good reason, but still.
Zazere regarded Rinitha with his cold black eyes until she flushed and looked away. "I would advise that we get into the tent before the storm reaches us."
Nobody argued. Inside the tent, Verdin and Zazere sat near the flap while Carlan and Rinitha huddled together at the back. The wind picked up, causing the sides of the tent to buck in and out. It seemed a terribly flimsy shelter to Carlan, but he just kept telling himself that they had made it through worse situations than this.
Sand skittered over the top of the tent as the air outside darkened under the weight of the storm. Then Carlan heard another, louder sound. Almost like rushing water. He frowned. "What is-" The rest of the sentence was lost as the tent collapsed on top of him.
Everything around Carlan was heavy darkness. He couldn't move. Couldn't see. Couldn't breathe. Panic made his chest tighten. Then a hand was on his arm dragging him free and he was gasping for breath. The wind howled like a caged beast and Rinitha was making frightened gulping noises.
"The tent is falling in," Verdin shouted. His voice was controlled but there was a hint of panic in his blue-green eyes. "We have to get out."
Carlan rolled over on all fours. Rinitha was by his side, her blue eyes wide, but Zazere was nowhere in sight. Carlan couldn't help but feel resentment that the mage had thought only of himself, though he wasn't surprised. They crawled out through the tent opening. Carlan clenched his teeth and gritted his eyes against the expectation of blasting sand. Instead, he found himself surrounded by a sphere of clear air. The storm raged outside but it touched nothing within.
Zazere stood a few feet away with his arms raised at his sides and his hands palm out as he held the storm at bay. He was trembling slightly and tension showed clear on his face. Carlan stood and stared in wonder at the sand whipping by. The back of the tent was buried under a sandslide that had fallen down the side of the dune they were sheltering under. If not for Zazere, they would surely have all been killed.
Sand piled on top of the sphere, blocking the sky. When the storm had passed, an opening appeared in the sphere ahead of them. "I would suggest you get out," Zazere said. "Quickly." The muscles in his neck strained against his pale skin.
Carlan didn't have to be told twice. He grabbed Rinitha's hand and drew her out through the opening. Verdin was right behind them. The sphere collapsed as soon as they were out and a great rush of wind hit them, flinging sand into their faces. When the air had cleared they saw that there was a smaller sand dune beside the large one. There was no sign of Zazere.
Carlan and Verdin exchanged a look, then fell to their knees and began to dig. But for every handful of sand they drew away another fell to take its place. "Stop," Verdin said, laying a hand on Carlan's arm. "This is getting us nowhere."
"What?" Carlan looked at Verdin in disbelief. "He saved our lives. We can't just let him die."
"Of course not." Verdin put two fingers to his lips and whistled. Sundance and Starshine rose up out of the sand, their hides colored a uniform red. Verdin pointed to the little dune. "Dig. But carefully. We want Zazere out intact."
The humans backed out of the way and the gryphons set to digging. Sand flew out behind them. Carlan watched their progress anxiously and called out when he spotted a pale hand. The gryphons moved away to let Verdin and Carlan pull Zazere out.
Carlan knelt beside the mage and touched a hand to his throat. His skin was cold but Carlan expected that. Jada had once told him that the slyph's skin was like that of a corpse. What he was looking for was a pulse. And he found it. Faint, but there. He sat back on his heels. "I don't know how, but he's alive. Only I can't tell if he's hurt inside or not. Maybe we shouldn't move him."
Verdin made a face. "I suppose we'll have to stay here until he wakes up."
"What if he doesn't?" Rinitha asked.
"Then we bury him in the sand and go on to Slithering." Verdin slid his gun from its holster and began to check it. "If he carries some secret we need then Jada should have told us what it is."
It sounded a bit cold and not like Verdin. But then he had been acting strangely since they left the others in Ravine. Carlan knew why and he supposed that eventually they were going to have to have a talk. But not now. He rose to his feet. The storm had blown away and once again the sun was blazing down on his head. "We should get Zazere out of the heat. It can't hurt to move him a few feet."
Verdin nodded and together they lifted the mage and carried him into the shade. Then they all hunkered down, itchy, sweaty, and miserable, and waited to see if Zazere would wake.